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Ada Lovelace Institute warns against Covid app reuse

There are a number of lessons policy-makers should take away from the use of apps developed as part of the Covid-19 response

Governments and policy-makers need to assess the ramifications of the technological response that was deployed during the Covid-19 pandemic, a report from the Ada Lovelace Institute has concluded.

Technologies, such as contact-tracing apps and digital vaccine passports, were rapidly developed and deployed in response to the crisis. However, a review of evidence from 34 countries, published by the Ada Lovelace Institute, found that although such apps offered promising public health benefits during a time of emergency, they also raised questions around efficacy, consent, legitimacy, privacy, surveillance and proportionality.

The report, Lessons from the App Store, found that given the limited evidence made available to developers and decision-makers, there was a lack of understanding on how to define and evaluate the effectiveness of technologies deployed during the pandemic.

For instance, the Ada Lovelace Institute noted that being able to compare the effectiveness of contact-tracing apps with traditional contact-tracing methods would have helped to inform decision-making.

The report’s authors found that the roll-out of these technologies led to public protests in many countries, demonstrating a lack of public trust, which limited effectiveness. They urged governments and authorities to provide better communications to improve public acceptance.

The researchers noted that certain social groups faced barriers to access and compliance, such as digitally excluded people or those who could not afford to self-isolate. They recommended that policy-makers develop specific ways of monitoring and addressing the impact of future technologies on societal inequalities.

They also pointed out that since the technologies introduced in response to the pandemic were used to limit fundamental rights, these apps need to be governed by robust regulations and oversight mechanisms, with clear “sunset mechanisms” in place for when they are no longer needed. As an example, the report’s authors found that only a minority of countries, including Australia, Canada and Estonia, have decommissioned their contact-tracing apps and deleted the data collected. Digital vaccine passport infrastructure is still in place in many countries across the world, despite most countries having adopted a “living with Covid” policy.

Some Covid-19 technologies have been repurposed. The report’s authors found that digital vaccine passports have accelerated moves towards digital identity schemes in many countries and regional blocs. The My Covid Pass vaccine passport app, for example, developed by the African Union in collaboration with African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, is working towards building a digital ID framework for the African continent. Another example is the European Union, which has introduced uniform and interoperable proofs of vaccination through the EU Digital Covid Certificate.

Andrew Strait, associate director at the Ada Lovelace Institute, said: “We hope that our report will guide governments, policy-makers and other international organisations when deploying data-driven health technologies in the future.”

The report’s lead author, Melis Mevsimler, visiting senior researcher at the Ada Lovelace Institute, said the research shows how to use similar technologies in future as part of a “people-centred” approach that goes beyond technical considerations and genuinely improves people’s lived experiences.

“We must continue investigating the evolution of Covid-19 technologies so that we can decide on the appropriate role of these technologies in our societies, now and in the future,” she said.

Read more from the Ada Lovelace Institute

  • A guide to algorithmic impact assessments is being used to help developers, data scientists and product owners check bias in healthcare systems.
  • Global analysis by Ada Lovelace Institute and other research groups finds algorithmic accountability mechanisms in the public sector are hindered by a lack of engagement with the public.

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