Cultural Implications Regarding Privacy in Digital Contact Tracing Algorithms: Method Development and Empirical Ethics Analysis of a German and a Japanese Approach to Contact Tracing.

Publication date: Jun 28, 2023

Digital contact tracing algorithms (DCTAs) have emerged as a means of supporting pandemic containment strategies and protecting populations from the adverse effects of COVID-19. However, the impact of DCTAs on users’ privacy and autonomy has been heavily debated. Although privacy is often viewed as the ability to control access to information, recent approaches consider it as a norm that structures social life. In this regard, cultural factors are crucial in evaluating the appropriateness of information flows in DCTAs. Hence, an important part of ethical evaluations of DCTAs is to develop an understanding of their information flow and their contextual situatedness to be able to adequately evaluate questions about privacy. However, only limited studies and conceptual approaches are currently available in this regard. This study aimed to develop a case study methodology to include contextual cultural factors in ethical analysis and present exemplary results of a subsequent analysis of 2 different DCTAs following this approach. We conducted a comparative qualitative case study of the algorithm of the Google Apple Exposure Notification Framework as exemplified in the German Corona Warn App and the Japanese approach of Computation of Infection Risk via Confidential Locational Entries (CIRCLE) method. The methodology was based on a postphenomenological perspective, combined with empirical investigations of the technological artifacts within their context of use. An ethics of disclosure approach was used to focus on the social ontologies created by the algorithms and highlight their connection to the question about privacy. Both algorithms use the idea of representing a social encounter of 2 subjects. These subjects gain significance in terms of risk against the background of a representation of their temporal and spatial properties. However, the comparative analysis reveals 2 major differences. Google Apple Exposure Notification Framework prioritizes temporality over spatiality. In contrast, the representation of spatiality is reduced to distance without any direction or orientation. However, the CIRCLE framework prioritizes spatiality over temporality. These different concepts and prioritizations can be seen to align with important cultural differences in considering basic concepts such as subject, time, and space in Eastern and Western thought. The differences noted in this study essentially lead to 2 different ethical questions about privacy that are raised against the respective backgrounds. These findings have important implications for the ethical evaluation of DCTAs, suggesting that a culture-sensitive assessment is required to ensure that technologies fit into their context and create less concern regarding their ethical acceptability. Methodologically, our study provides a basis for an intercultural approach to the ethics of disclosure, allowing for cross-cultural dialogue that can overcome mutual implicit biases and blind spots based on cultural differences.

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Concepts Keywords
Apple algorithms
Confidential culture-sensitive ethics
German digital contact tracing
Google empirical ethics
Japanese methodology
mobile phone


Type Source Name
disease IDO contact tracing
disease MESH COVID-19
disease IDO algorithm
disease MESH Infection
disease VO time
disease IDO object
disease IDO process
disease VO protocol
drug DRUGBANK Methyltestosterone
pathway REACTOME Signal attenuation
disease VO device
drug DRUGBANK Azelaic acid
disease VO ineffective
drug DRUGBANK Methionine
disease VO Gap
disease IDO host
disease IDO entity
disease VO efficient
disease MESH emergencies
disease VO effectiveness
disease VO USA
drug DRUGBANK Aspartame
disease VO document
disease VO effective
drug DRUGBANK Coenzyme M
disease IDO history

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