by R.J. Snell, Ph.D.

Given the continued spread of coronavirus and the inherent limitations of stay at home orders and social distancing, many health authorities are developing contact tracing plans. As outlined by the CDC, case investigators would contact infected patients, “assist in arranging for patients to isolate themselves, and work with patients to identify people with whom the patients have been in close contact so the contact tracer can locate them.” That is, investigators would determine who has been in close contact with an infected person, and those contacts, now possibly themselves infected and capable of infecting others, would self-isolate. In this way, the rates of infection could be controlled and limited.

Of course, given the number of patients involved, and the exponentially larger number of patients’ contacts, the number of case investigators needed to make tracing effective is enormous—somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 people according to some analysis.

In light of those complexities and costs, digital contact tracing appears more feasible to many, with the tracking capacities of smartphones utilized to automatically alert individuals if they (or at least their phone) came into close proximity with an infected person. This assumes people actually download the relevant app, but the technology is available and has been utilized effectively in other countries.

However, digital contact tracing raises a host of ethical and privacy concerns. Who stores and controls the information? Who can access the information? What information is shared—names, gender, race, location? Does this constitute unreasonable search and seizure? Does anyone, including the government, have a right to know where we’ve been, and with whom? Does the government have the authority to require citizens to download and use an app?

As in so many contemporary issues, most of the energy is spent on policy battles and not enough on guiding principles. In that spirit, a few first principles should guide our reflections.

  1. Our autonomy ought to be safeguarded by the government and health authorities. Contact tracing should be entirely voluntary. Digital tracing should be used, if at all, only on a voluntary basis, and data gathered should be limited in extent, access tightly restricted, and data should not be stored for the long-term. Information related to our health and body, in the end, is of our very personhood, and there should be a presumption against the gathering and sharing of such data. No one should be forced to participate in digital contact tracing.
  2. Still, while we bear inviolable individual rights, those rights are grounded primarily in our responsibilities. For instance, we have the right to free speech and thought because we have an obligation to seek the truth and to live in keeping with the truth. Similarly, as members of a society and citizens of a nation, our obligations are not only to ourselves but also to others. We have rights, such as freedom of movement and association, because we have the responsibility to live well and to not interfere with others attempts to do the same.
  3. The health and well-being of others ought to be part of my concern. Just as I cannot have the good of friendship without being concerned for the well-being of my friend, so I cannot have the good of citizenship if I have no concern and responsibility to and for others. Of course, there are levels of responsibility—I have a high level of responsibility to care for the well-being of my children and parents, a somewhat lesser obligaton for my friends and neighbors; when it comes to strangers, my responsibilities are often fulfilled simply by not harming them, by leaving them alone.
  4. In order to be a free people, we must be a self-governed people, not an ungoverned Liberty is not license, and we ought not act in disregard for the health and well-being of others.
  5. Government should recognize and treat citizens like adults, like self-governed persons, and should not contribute to our infantilization and irresponsibility by assuming that we need to be manipulated, tracked, and contacted. But, at the same time, it is the duty of every citizen to act like a responsible, self-governed person who recognizes their responsibilities to others.

In short, we ought to reject digital tracing, but each of us is responsible to not wantonly risk the health and well-being of others—that’s what it means to be free.


[August 1, 2020]