Contact-tracing apps: a threat to our liberty or business as usual?


Mobile applications for digital contact-tracing and exposure-notification have been developed and introduced around the world in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Proposed as a tool to support “traditional” forms of contact-tracing carried out to monitor contagion, these apps have triggered an intense debate with respect to their legal and ethical permissibility, social desirability and general feasibility. But how do European citizens position themselves vis-à-vis contact-tracing apps? What arguments and moral views do they articulate when reflecting about the uptake of these digital devices?

We address these questions in an article that has been published in Critical Public Health. In this study, which is based on 349 in-depth interviews with people in nine European countries – Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom – we explore which normative positions people hold about contact-tracing apps. Moving beyond simple dichotomic framings, this article provides a detailed and nuanced account of how people arrive at elaborating different positions towards digital contact-tracing: What are the fears and hopes that they associate with the apps? What does the practice of using contact-tracing app mean to them and which values are at stake? And what arguments do people resort to when articulating their positions about the apps?

We have identified five main positions in the interviews (which we conducted in 2020, at the early phase of apps rollout): opposition, scepticism of feasibility, pondered deliberation, resignation, and support. At one end of the spectrum, we find arguments of opposition towards the use of Covid apps based on strong concerns about governments or other powerful actors reinforcing already pervasive surveillance structures in our hyper-connected digital societies. Arguments articulated by people holding this position tend to follow a deontological type of reasoning, foregrounding the protection of some rights perceived as inalienable (e.g. individual autonomy and freedom), irrespective of whether or not a specific practice is likely to cause actual harm. They are often framed as slippery slope arguments pointing to the risk of drifts towards unaccountable and undemocratic regimes of surveillance.

At the other hand of the spectrum, we find arguments of outright support of Covid apps. They are seen as ‘effective’ means to tackle the pandemic crisis, while requiring little to no efforts from the part of individual people. Reference to privacy issues often represents the starting point for reflecting about this technological intervention, though privacy concerns are invoked here precisely to downplay their perceived relevance in the assessment of apps in the current situation.

A third position, on the critical side of the spectrum, is characterised by a focus on the practical feasibility of the apps rollout, which is accompanied by the scepticism that the digital contact-tracing system will work as expected. Respondents articulate an eminently pragmatic type of reasoning, expressing their scepticism towards the effectiveness of Covid apps and their successful deployment to control the spread of contagions. People who hold this position do not typically engage in full-fledged normative discussions around the reasons for either supporting or opposing the adoption of this technology: the question of whether Covid apps will promote individual or the public good, or in fact raise unacceptable concerns, is dismissed (or left pending) on pragmatic grounds, as no digital contact-tracing system is expected to be successfully set up in the very first place.

Another stance is centred on the pondered deliberation of the different motives for either supporting or opposing Covid apps. The argumentation is often articulated in the guise of a risk/benefit assessment: that is an explicit appraisal of the different reasons for either supporting or opposing the apps. Substantively, this position is typically expressed by pitting concerns towards digital monitoring and privacy against the potential benefits deriving from the use of digital contact-tracing systems. The latter are perceived as revolving in particular around a number of both personal and public goods (public health, economic recovery, personal freedom) that the apps are expected to help attain. The argument is of consequentialist nature, focusing on the potential usefulness of the technology. In most cases, this pondered deliberation around the pros and cons of Covid apps tips the balance of the argument in favor of this technology, as the identified benefits are believed – in the end – to outweigh the privacy concerns. At a more fine-grained level, two dominant argumentative patterns underpinning the views of people engaging in such deliberation: (i) pitting the personal vs the public good; (ii) reasoning around the limits of the present state of exception.

A final position expressed by people is one of resignation, predicated on the acknowledgment that we have already accepted being tracked in many spheres of our lives (for example, by large tech companies), that it wouldn’t matter to submit our data for one more of such tracking. Although it starts from the same premise of the adverse position (‘we are continuously monitored’), it reaches an opposite conclusion (‘we can be monitored by the app as well’).

Contrary to how this topic is covered in public media, our analysis shows that many people do not hold clear-cut views (either in favour or against) contact-tracing apps. Many people were torn between finding the app useful, and concerns about privacy, about too much surveillance carried out, and about the infrastructural limitations hindering the apps uptake. Neither did most people think of their individual interest (e.g. in terms of privacy) as in a tension with the public good: respondents who had concerns about their own privacy also considered privacy as a necessary component for achieving other values, such as democracy, freedom, psychological wellbeing, and creating and maintaining a well-functioning democratic society.

Moreover, when reasoning about the governance implications of this technological intervention, another relevant view being expressed is that, once such technologies are woven into the social fabric justified by the urgency of exceptional pandemic circumstances, they could be endowed with normative and social legitimation that propel their further use for socially disruptive and ethically illegitimate purposes. In the same vein, political leadership is portrayed as taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to pursue other and broader political goals. In other words, people expressed fears that digital technologies that could be suited to ensure effective public health surveillance could become a means for population surveillance, once the pandemic is over.

We conclude that policy attempts to develop and implement these and other digital responses to the pandemic should move beyond the reiteration of binary framings, and instead cater to the variety of values, concerns and expectations that citizens voice in discussions about these types of public health interventions.


The SolPan project is an international and comparative longitudinal study. This article is based on interviews conducted in nine European countries in October 2020. Federica Lucivero (University of Oxford) and Luca Marelli (KU Leuven, University of Milan) led the data analysis and drafted a first version of the article. For a full list of co-authors, please see the full article at Critical Public Health.

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