A Franciscan expert is warning of a “dystopia” if society delegates to contact tracing apps its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

– Digital rights around the world during the outbreak

According to digital rights group Top10VPN, at the end of April contact tracing apps to curtail the spread of COVID-19 were being used in 29 countries, and alternative digital tracking measures were active in 30 nations.

At the end of last month, physical surveillance technologies had been implemented in nine countries, and COVID-19-related censorship had been imposed by 15 governments.

Internet shutdowns were also being implemented in three countries in the midst of the pandemic.

In its response to the outbreak, the Italian government has chosen to implement the app ‘Immuni’, a program which when it goes live at the end of May will use the Bluetooth signal on smartphones to track potential contact points with the virus.

The head of Italy’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, Domenico Arcuri, gave assurances at the end of April that no personally-identifiable data will be included in the information – fully encrypted – collected by the app, for which he gave a “full and absolute guarantee of privacy”.

– Three criteria for judging the ethicality of tracing apps: “who, how, when”

Speaking about Immuni to SIR May 6, Franciscan expert Father Paolo Benanti explained that judging the ethicality or otherwise of COVID-19 tracing apps “entails first of all answering three questions: who, how and when”.

The ‘who’ of the question, said the professor of Moral Theology and the Ethics of Technology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, refers to whether the entity responsible for the app – in the Italian case, the Milan-based developer Bending Spoons, in collaboration with the Santagostino Medical Centre and the Italian Ministry of Innovation – is acting out of private interests or a concern for the common good.

“Then there is the ‘how'”, explained the member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

“If we ask citizens to submit their data, we need to specify its purpose”, he said.

“So if the personal information provided to the community, i.e. to this system, is necessary to improve medical treatment as a sort of tax for our own health, it is one thing.

“If, on the other hand, it should become an expropriation by a private entity for business purposes, then we are dealing with something else entirely”, Benanti warned.

As for the ‘when’ of contact tracing apps, the Franciscan explained that that third criterion for judging the ethicality of the programs entails asking how long the information collected by the app will be kept and what it will be used for.

“As long as it is kept for as long as is strictly necessary, and if it is used exclusively for this purpose, then perhaps the effects of this system, which is in fact a system for controlling people, will be mitigated”, the priest said.

– “If we focus only on the app we’re saying only the lives of smartphone users are important”

Those questions on the who, how and when of coronavirus tracing apps, however, don’t exhaust all the ethical concerns over the programs, the Franciscan went on.

Assuming that a particular app is appropriate because it is being used for the common good to improve the public health system and provides robust data protection guarantees, the question remains of whether it is to be installed voluntarily or mandatorily, Benanti said.

“Not to mention that the request to use a smartphone with Bluetooth will create a divide amongst citizens, as not everyone has such devices or knows how to use them”, he warned.

“If we focus only on the app we are saying that only the lives of smartphone users are important.

“This may be an additional tool but the answer must be societal, for each person is a life with dignity and rights.

“In this respect we cannot delegate to technology, which may serve as an additional resource, but we must ensure that our human nature remains at the centre”.

– “The app alone, without a public health system, is useless”

Insisting that society must adopt a “human response” to the pandemic, Benanti said the alternative was to risk “dystopian and inhuman patterns”.

“Considering the smartphone model to be the standard one, in fact, means saying that those who are left out, children, the elderly, the poor, are second-class citizens”, he cautioned.

“The app alone, without swabs, without a National Health Service system, is useless”, he further alerted, adding that anti-COVID-19 technology is “not a place to entrust our safety but a tool to strengthen the standard procedures to contain the spread of the virus”.

The efficacy of Immuni “will therefore depend on the extent to which it will be incorporated into other control systems and, above all, on how many people will install it”, Benanti concluded.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.