Data ethics in a pandemic. Navigating the dilemmas and complexities in a changing public health environment

Activity: Academic talk or presentation typesInvited talk



Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic Western nations have struggled to balance the desire for more data for public health intelligence and the desire for individual privacy and choice. This dilemma has manifested in the context of technologies such as contact tracing apps, infrastructures for linking population-based ‘big data’, and the use of innovative methodologies such as artificial intelligence. This has been compounded by controversies over the public procurement of data-driven programmes and services, the role of corporate technology actors, and the accuracy of epidemic data science models. At the same time, the absence of key data to inform interventions or justify government decisions to the public has itself brought ethical challenges.
As we navigate repeated waves of infection, new variants that may be resistant to emerging vaccines and NHS pressures that show little sign of relenting, the terms of the ‘new normal’ remain uncertain. Suboptimal adherence with both voluntary recommendations and legal lockdowns is forcing policymakers to revisit some of the more draconian surveillance and control measures used in other countries. Regaining our freedoms may require the acceptance of greater monitoring, policing and certification, such as with so-called ‘vaccine passports’. Covid-19 has also accelerated existing data aggregation, analytics and surveillance capabilities, which appear likely to extend beyond the pandemic to support policy analytics, research and innovation, raising new ethical questions about the relationship between government and citizens.
This talk will consider some of these complexities and dilemmas from a European perspective, drawing on observations of the public health response in the UK/Scotland.

Discussion Questions –
Government safety recommendations and mandated lockdowns have failed to control behaviour during Covid-19, while the uptake and use of privacy-protecting proximity apps has been disappointing. Should we be embracing more coercive digital approaches, as used in countries like Singapore? How will this challenge our democratic and social norms? Under what conditions might citizens be willing to accept such measures? What are the alternatives? Does public health trump personal rights in a pandemic, or can we find a fair balance?
Period22 Jan 2021
Event titleControversies in the Data Society, Seminar Series: Controversies in COVID tracking and control in China and Europe
Event typeSeminar
Degree of RecognitionLocal


  • Covid-19
  • Digital Health
  • Big Data
  • Apps
  • Digital Ethics
  • Controversies