Towards a seamful ethics of Covid-19 contact tracing apps?

Ethics and Information Technology 23 (1):105-115 (2020)
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Abstract

In the early months of 2020, the deadly Covid-19 disease spread rapidly around the world. In response, national and regional governments implemented a range of emergency lockdown measures, curtailing citizens’ movements and greatly limiting economic activity. More recently, as restrictions begin to be loosened or lifted entirely, the use of so-called contact tracing apps has figured prominently in many jurisdictions’ plans to reopen society. Critics have questioned the utility of such technologies on a number of fronts, both practical and ethical. However, little has been said about the ways in which the normative design choices of app developers, and the products that result therefrom, might contribute to ethical reflection and wider political debate. Drawing from scholarship in critical design and human–computer interaction, this paper examines the development of a QR code-based tracking app called Zwaai (‘Wave’ in Dutch), where its designers explicitly positioned the app as an alternative to the predominant Bluetooth and GPS-based approaches. Through analyzing these designers’ choices, this paper argues that QR code infrastructures can work to surface a set ofethical–political seams, two of which are discussed here—responsibilizationandnetworked (im)permanence—that more ‘seamless’ protocols like Bluetooth actively aim to bypass, and which may go otherwise unnoticed by existing ethical frameworks.

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