Who counts? Contact tracing and the perils of ‘privacy’

By Os Keyes

Linnet Taylor was kind enough to ask me to contribute a chapter to “Data Justice and COVID-19: Global Perspectives”, a new edited volume out of Meatspace Press. My chapter can be found here.

It’s short and to the point; when we focus on privacy as the only negative implication of contact tracing apps, we ignore the historic inequalities in who can afford privacy - and who has the technologies such apps depend on available to them. These inequalities are frequently racialised, and at a time when we know that there are dramatic racial disparities in the impact of coronavirus, worth paying at least as much attention to as privacy.

One thing I didn’t have the space to unpack was a systemic, indirect consequence of these disparities in this technology; that of concretisation. These apps generate data, which is used to identify the prevalence of coronavirus. A dependence on that data will, due to aforementioned inequalities, produce an image and materialisation of coronavirus in which racial minorities disproportionately appear at the “end” of the cycle: entering data only in emergency room admissions and fatalities, rather than before. Now: we’re already seeing people respond to the disparities in infection and fatality rates by coming up with racial pseudoscience about vitamin D deficiencies or melanin or whatever; my worry is that an infection tracking system which primarily represents those racial minorities with particularly serious/severe infections is going to boost and further legitimise this nonsense. That is: as well as the direct harms to individuals who experience (avoidable) infections and medical malpractice, the systemic consequences include further data that “proves” people of colour are more succeptible - a proof that stems in part from their underrepresentation in the early notification and exposure data streams.