Blind-sided by privacy? Digital contact tracing, the Apple/Google API and big tech’s newfound role as global health policy makers

Ethics and Information Technology 23 (S1):45-57 (2020)
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Abstract

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, governments have turned their attention to digital contact tracing. In many countries, public debate has focused on the risks this technology poses to privacy, with advocates and experts sounding alarm bells about surveillance and mission creep reminiscent of the post 9/11 era. Yet, when Apple and Google launched their contact tracing API in April 2020, some of the world’s leading privacy experts applauded this initiative for its privacy-preserving technical specifications. In an interesting twist, the tech giants came to be portrayed as greater champions of privacy than some democratic governments. This article proposes to view the Apple/Google API in terms of a broader phenomenon whereby tech corporations are encroaching into ever new spheres of social life. From this perspective, the advantage these actors have accrued in the sphere of the production of digital goods provides them with access to the spheres of health and medicine, and more worrisome, to the sphere of politics. These sphere transgressions raise numerous risks that are not captured by the focus on privacy harms. Namely, a crowding out of essential spherical expertise, new dependencies on corporate actors for the delivery of essential, public goods, the shaping of public policy by non-representative, private actors and ultimately, the accumulation of decision-making power across multiple spheres. While privacy is certainly an important value, its centrality in the debate on digital contact tracing may blind us to these broader societal harms and unwittingly pave the way for ever more sphere transgressions.

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Tamar Sharon
Radboud University Nijmegen