ICT, Datafication, Covid-19, Social Listening and AI Technology in Development
Contact tracing – balancing access and privacy

Contact tracing – balancing access and privacy

Cutting edge solutions are what ultimately will lead to effective mitigations for public health crises like that of COVID-19. Technology is the forefront of the cutting edge. Contact tracing will be vital to not only mitigating the spread of COVID-19, but for any other future epidemics or pandemics. However, contact tracing needs to address its uses in a manner that does not marginalize any further the already impoverished. It seems that at crucial times the more some are connected the more marginalized others become. Two important questions to ask with regards to contact tracing are will the marginalized have access, and will civil liberties be protected?

Koushik Sinha, assistant professor in the School of Computing at Southern Illinois University, is working on an approach that uses Google timeline history. This application will not only provide the public with the latest data on COVID-19 case locations locally, but also protect the identity of those diagnosed or exposed to the virus. Once populated with the proper data and synced with common GPS information, the Virus Contact Map (VCM) would provide an important tool for avoiding exposure and tracking the virus’ spread.

This is a wonderful opportunity for big data to greatly aid development. One of Sinha’s earlier projects, AIDR (Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response), used machine learning-based analytics of tweets and texts in real time during humanitarian crises. AIDR has been extensively used by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This is good as long as the most vulnerable of people aren’t slipping through cracks.

Who has access?

GPS information for the VCM is tracked via mobile devices. Those with the least access to mobile devices often correlate to age and income, with the poor and very old least likely to have the resources to own one. They’re also the group who can least afford to miss work if they even have the luxury of a job. Additionally, they have the least access to healthcare which makes them the most likely to suffer as a result of the pandemic.

In essence, COVID tracing is important for impoverished people and the development of these tools should not allow for the marginalized to become even more vulnerable. Gilman and Green in their piece refer to this “‘surveillance gap’: the ways in which society’s most vulnerable members’ ‘functional [invisibility]’ to surveillance systems can cost them dearly when such systems govern access to resources.” What guardrails could be put into place to ensure that another sector doesn’t become inequal like access to healthcare, food, and housing?

Is privacy ensured?

Another aspect to ponder with the VCM technology regards the assurances of privacy. GPS tracing can discover and trace a person’s travels, who their friends are, who they associate with etc. This can be perceived as rather intrusive to many. With so much data being collected that could later be used for all different types of purposes it should be imperative that any data taken for the cause of the greater good isn’t done so at the loss of personal privacy.

University of California, Irvine School of Law professor Michele Goodwin on a recent episode of the “Amicus” podcast stressed the need to maintain individual protections even in the face of an extraordinary crisis. “Our civil liberties don’t just simply go away because there is a virus that is afoot that might affect many people.” “You don’t lose your civil liberties simply because there is something in the air. You don’t lose your civil liberties simply because you become sick.”

The solutions need to not only protect personal privacy but also ask who is excluded and develop and implement technologies that ensures that the marginalized and most vulnerable have access.



Taylor, L., Sharma, G., Martin, A. & Jameson, S. 2020: Data Justice and COVID-19: Global Perspectives (Links to an external site.), Meatspace Press.