Scientific and epidemiological evidence suggest that a contact tracing app has the potential to contribute to reducing the suffering caused by the pandemic and minimise the harms caused by long periods of lockdown. These benefits and the avoidance of harms are clearly of great moral significance. If they are to be realised, however, several other ethical requirements need to be met.
The team's latest paper Ethics of instantaneous contact tracing using mobile phone apps in the control of the COVID-19 pandemic, published in The Journal of Medical Ethics, summarises how the successful and appropriate use of the app as an intervention relies on the ability to command well-founded public trust and confidence. This applies to the use of the app itself and of the data.
"There are well-founded public concerns on the implications of digital tracing and these have been included in our consideration and conceptualisation of the app's configuration since inception," explains Professor Christophe Fraser, co-lead on the mobile contact tracing app team at Oxford's Nuffield Department of Medicine.
There are well-established ethical arguments recognising the importance of achieving health benefits and avoiding harm. These arguments are particularly powerful in the context of a pandemic with the characteristics of COVID-19.
The contact tracing app-based system offers the possibility of both reducing the number of cases and enabling people to continue their lives in an informed, safe, and socially responsible way. It offers the potential to achieve important public benefits whilst maximising autonomy.