Is there a duty to participate in digital epidemiology?

Brent Mittelstadt, Justus Benzler, Lukas Engelmann, Barbara Prainsack, Effy Vayena

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper poses the question of whether people have a duty to participate in digital epidemiology. While an implied duty to participate has been argued for in relation to biomedical research in general, digital epidemiology involves processing of non-medical, granular and proprietary data types that pose different risks to participants. We first describe traditional justifications for epidemiology that imply a duty to participate for the general public, which take account of the immediacy and plausibility of threats, and the identifiability of data. We then consider how these justifications translate to digital epidemiology, understood as an evolution of traditional epidemiology that includes personal and proprietary digital data alongside formal medical datasets. We consider the risks imposed by re-purposing such data for digital epidemiology and propose eight justificatory conditions that should be met in justifying a duty to participate for specific digital epidemiological studies. The conditions are then applied to three hypothetical cases involving usage of social media data for epidemiological purposes. We conclude with a list of questions to be considered in public negotiations of digital epidemiology, including the application of a duty to participate to third-party data controllers, and the important distinction between moral and legal obligations to participate in research.
Original languageEnglish
JournalLife Sciences, Society and Policy
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 9 May 2018


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