Prof. Jo Pierson and PhD researcher Ine van Zeeland participated in a conference on ‘Privacy and Pandemics’ organized by the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) to help set the agenda for the Convergence Accelator program of the US National Science Foundation (NSF).
In the two-day virtual conference on October 27-28, 2020, a select group of technologists, scientists, policymakers, data experts, companies, and regulators explored the value and limits of data and technology in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The main questions that were addressed were about the role that technology and data played in combating the crisis, and which lessons could be learned about the limitations of law, policy, and technical tools.
Pierson and Van Zeeland were selected to participate based on their position paper that focused on technological solutionism: the tendency to seek eye-catching yet overly simplistic technological ‘fixes’ to complex societal problems. In the paper, they discussed contact-tracing apps as an example. While there is limited evidence of effectiveness of contact-tracing apps and especially vulnerable groups may not be able to use them, they were quickly touted around the world as ‘solutions’ to COVID-19. Pierson and Van Zeeland also warn that many of these apps rely on essential support from the smartphone operating systems Android and iOS, without any independent oversight or democratic influence on the decisions that Google and Apple make about these operating systems. In essence, public health policies are thus made contingent on the decisions of big technology companies.
The conference discussions will be included in a report for the NSF intended to help set the agenda of its Convergence Accelerator, a program that funds interdisciplinary research to meet society-wide challenges.
[picture by Ine Van Zeeland]