Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Power in Contact Tracing Apps

Power in Contact Tracing AppsEdit


Contact tracing apps facilitate the identification of people that have come into contact with someone that has tested positive for COVID-19.[1] Different countries have created different versions of this app, but this chapter focuses on apps that use Bluetooth to exchange signals with other phones with the same app.

This chapter deals specifically with the power dynamics that emerge between disciplines as they wrestle for influence over the design of contact-tracing apps. It identifies three main disciplines which contribute to this interdisciplinary tension as contradictory perspectives arise on how best to approach the trade-off between privacy and effectiveness: law, technology and sociology.



Law has the most obvious overt power[2] in this debate as those involved in the development of contact-tracing apps, from computer scientists to government officials, must act in accordance with the legal constraints on their work. This power is explicit as the demands for privacy protections are clearly laid out in documents such as the European Union's (EU) General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR).[3]

However, the power of law is limited because the law is open to challenge. For example, the GDPR states that the processing of personal data can be lawful when it is strictly necessary for the purpose it serves,[3] in this case reducing COVID-19 transmission rates. Furthermore, some countries have unique laws that grant exceptions to privacy laws during public health crises, such as the Infectious Diseases Control and Prevention Act of South Korea[4] and the Infectious Diseases Act of Singapore.[5] As what is deemed a necessity and a public health crisis is open to interpretation, there is a possibility for the overt power of law to shift to other parties who can prove that certain compromises on data privacy are necessary.


In policy making, technical expertise from scientists is widely regarded as a source of power that can influence policy decisions.[6] The idea that modern digital technology can solve all societal problems has been growing rapidly in the field of technology, with the terms “solutionism”[7] and “technology triumphalism”[8] being created to criticize this idea. The manifestation of this can be seen in how scientists were quick to advocate for digital solutions, such as contact tracing apps, to quickly detect and isolate potential coronavirus cases as manual contact tracing was too slow and limited.[9][10]

The crux of the debate on contact tracing apps has to do with whether apps should utilize a decentralised or centralised model. Under a centralised model, the anonymised data gathered by logging interactions with other users is uploaded to a remote server when the user tests positive from COVID-19. Under a decentralised model, this process is carried out on the mobile device itself and the records are not revealed to anyone, thus ensuring a higher level of privacy than the centralised model.[11]

As the first apps were developed, most attention seemed to be on the centralised model, with a large collaboration of scientists from at least eight European countries starting the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) project.[12] Proponents of the centralised model argued that the centralised collection of data would allow public health authorities to provide epidemiological insights like the location of clusters and which types of areas are prone to becoming clusters.[13] It would also prevent individuals from falsely declaring themselves infected, making the data more accurate.[14] As scientists convinced governments that this was vital to combat the spread of the virus, countries such as France and the UK started to develop apps based on the centralised model.[11] This example of latent power, where one party exercises power over another by influencing what they think they need,[15] led governments to exert their power. For example in April 2020, the government of France called on Apple and Google to relax the strict limits on what data their app can collect.[16]


Ensuring that privacy standards are maintained is a key consideration within sociology[17] and therefore many sociologists have been weighing in on the debate between centralised and decentralised apps.

Sociologists believe that there is a major breach of privacy with the centralised model and the risk of mission creep could result in large scale state surveillance.[18] They argue that for the app to be effective, a sufficient percentage of the population must accept the privacy tradeoffs and download the app. If these tradeoffs are too severe, the download rates of the app would be low.[19] This can be seen in some countries utilizing the centralized model, such as France, where less than 10% of the population had downloaded the app as of October 2020.[20]

As public trust is the resource that policymakers depend on to establish effective contact tracing systems, this relationship between public trust and policymakers can be seen as resource dependence.[21] This form of power was exercised in April 2020, when over 300 academics from 26 countries signed a letter criticising the centralised model.[22] They pushed for the more privacy-preserving decentralised version and argued that with this model, citizens would be less resistant to download the app, hence increasing its effectiveness. By explaining the dependency of the effectiveness of the app on public trust and thus preserving privacy, sociologists can influence the actions of policymakers. The impact of this power can be seen by the significant drop in popularity of the centralised model, with the UK switching from a centralised to a decentralised model[11] and the withdrawn support for PPEP-PT in favor of it’s decentralised competitor.[13][23]

However, this power is limited depending on the unique sociopolitical context of each country, which determines the level of trust people have in government. For example, the contact tracing app of Singapore involves the centralised collection of data from users that test positive, but the app has been met with broad acceptance by its citizens.[24] As citizens of Singapore have a greater trust in their authorities than other countries such as the UK and Germany,[25] they may be less concerned about placing their data in the hands of authorities and more willing to download the app.


As each discipline wrestles for the dominance of their perspective, it is clear that the concept of power is central to contact-tracing apps. While scientists trying to create effective technological solutions are frustrated by the emphasis on data protection rights that hinders their potential, sociologists who are stringent in their privacy standards are unwilling to compromise for technological benefits. These challenges from different disciplines are not necessarily a drawback, and in fact highlight the benefit of taking an interdisciplinary approach to real-world problems. The power struggle prevents one voice from dominating the debate and allows policymakers to achieve an equilibrium in the solution that respects every factor, from the benefits of processing personal data to the necessity of also gaining public trust. There is no one balance that fits every society, as each must reflect their unique laws and sociopolitical contexts, further highlighting the need to see this issue from an interdisciplinary perspective.


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