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Is it possible that smartphone apps promote inequalities?

Anti-COVID smartphone apps that enable contact tracing would seem to be a useful tool against the pandemic. These apps allow the tracing of infected people and their close contacts and advise those affected to be tested and to self-isolate. But they pose two major problems. Firstly, since these apps can transmit very personal information, how is this information protected? And secondly, since not everyone has access to these apps, or to testing facilities, and not everyone can self-isolate easily, is there not a risk that they promote inequalities in the face of this health crisis?

One example of the way this data collected from apps may be used comes from Singapore. Initially, the government promised to use the data only for identification of close contacts. But since January 2021, policy on its use has changed to allow it to be referenced in criminal cases.

To counter this kind of abuse of private data, researchers in Europe, the United States and Australia have designed apps where data is conserved in the user’s telephone, which is then alerted in case of contact with an infected individual. Google and Apple have also worked on tracing apps that keep a maximum of user data private. These platforms are already used in Switzerland, and other European countries are likely to follow suit.

In addition to problems of confidentiality, several studies have shown that these apps can reinforce inequality. A British study observed a reduction of SARS-CoV-2 incidence in regions which used the app more often. These regions are principally rural, tend to be rich and have a higher average age. Less frequent usage of the app in poorer areas can be attributed to the requirement for a recent smartphone.

However there are other factors that also promote inequality. The poorest workers find it less easy to self-isolate, since they tend to have jobs that require their physical presence, where working from home is not possible. They need to work to maintain their income levels, or will require social benefits. 

In conclusion, anti-COVID smartphone apps have proved their usefulness, but do have disadvantages, notably concerning the protection of private data and the exacerbation of social inequalities. The use of the private data gathered by these apps varies according to government policy and available technologies. Overall, people remain wary. The technologies used are often complicated to explain and disinformation does contribute to people’s nervousness. As regards promoting social inequalities, solutions do exist: for example, financial help for those who need to self-isolate but who are unable to work from home.

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