In the first month of the COVID-19 outbreak, the international press reported sensational stories about China's use of technology for disease control - from drones dispensing medicines, robots providing care and mobile phone apps used to track and control citizens' movements. These stories conjured up images of dystopian 'Big Brother' uses of technology that seemed unfathomable outside of autocratic regimes. Yet, democratic societies have used digital communication technologies, big data and algorithms in pandemic preparedness efforts for several years, and are now widely deploying digital surveillance technologies in their responses to COVID-19.
'The Smartphone Pandemic' project critically examines the rise of such 'pandemic tech' innovations, focusing on the growing use of mobile data and contact tracing apps. The project will study the global norms governing these technologies, and the social, political and ethical implications of their use in in specific contexts: Norway, the UK, Sierra Leone and Myanmar. The project will produce insights into tech companies’ participation in pandemic policy-making, and explore how their experimentation with mobile data modelling in past disease outbreaks in low-income countries inform the COVID-19 response in countries like Norway. By combining insights from anthropology, international relations, political economy and philosophy, we will map the societal consequences of the growing reliance on pandemic tech, with the aim of ensuring its ethical and equitable use.
The research team consists of: Katerini T. Storeng (project lead), Antoine de Bengy Puyvallée and Desmond McNeill (University of Oslo, Norway); Susan Shepler and partners (University of Makeni, Sierra Leone); Tom Traill (Community Partners International, Myanmar); Sakiko Fukuda-Parr (The New School, USA); Sridhar Venkatapuram (Kings College London UK); and Susan Erikson (Simon Fraser University, Canada).
Will people let public health authorities track their movements through mobile phone data as they seek to establish the effectiveness of Covid-19 countermeasures like physical distancing, school closures and travel restrictions? Until recently, such questions seemed unfathomable outside of authoritarian regimes. However, the COVID-19 pandemic response has seen the rapid introduction of digital innovations like smartphone apps and mobile data in countries’ efforts to manage the crisis. New partnerships between governments and tech companies and new legal injunctions passed without public oversight have created a ‘data governance crisis of international concern’ that seems set to fundamentally alter the way we think about privacy in relation to the public good.
The SMARTPREP project provides the first investigation of the political, social and ethical implications of new uses of digital innovations in the COVID-19 response. It will analyse global data governance norms and provide case studies of Norway and Sierra Leone. Norway is currently at the forefront of experimenting with digital innovations as part of its effort to stem its outbreak, while Sierra Leone is drawing on experience of using smartphone tech during the Ebola crisis in 2014-2015 to prepare for a likely outbreak there. The project will explore how political and cultural differences affect public responses to digital innovation in times of crisis, while established relationships between the two countries around health information and development aid will make it possible to study instances of policy and technology transfer.
The project will provide policy-relevant knowledge about how digital innovations affect the way societies think of, prepare for, and respond to pandemic risk, and novel insights into how the use of digital innovations to fight the pandemic can challenge core societal values such as democracy, privacy and trust, with potential implications for the effectiveness of countermeasures.