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Ethics of instantaneous contact tracing using mobile phone apps in the control of the COVID-19 pandemic
  1. Michael J Parker1,
  2. Christophe Fraser2,3,
  3. Lucie Abeler-Dörner2,
  4. David Bonsall2,4
  1. 1 Wellcome Centre for Ethics and the Humanities and Ethox Centre,The Ethox Centre, Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
  2. 2 Big Data Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
  3. 3 Wellcome Centre for Human Genomics, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
  4. 4 Oxford University NHS Trust, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
  1. Correspondence to Professor Michael J Parker, The Ethox Centre, University of Oxford, Oxford OX3 7LF, UK; michael.parker{at}


In this paper we discuss ethical implications of the use of mobile phone apps in the control of the COVID-19 pandemic. Contact tracing is a well-established feature of public health practice during infectious disease outbreaks and epidemics. However, the high proportion of pre-symptomatic transmission in COVID-19 means that standard contact tracing methods are too slow to stop the progression of infection through the population. To address this problem, many countries around the world have deployed or are developing mobile phone apps capable of supporting instantaneous contact tracing. Informed by the on-going mapping of ‘proximity events’ these apps are intended both to inform public health policy and to provide alerts to individuals who have been in contact with a person with the infection. The proposed use of mobile phone data for ‘intelligent physical distancing’ in such contexts raises a number of important ethical questions. In our paper, we outline some ethical considerations that need to be addressed in any deployment of this kind of approach as part of a multidimensional public health response. We also, briefly, explore the implications for its use in future infectious disease outbreaks.

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  • Correction notice This paper has been corrected since it was first published online. There are two instances in the title and the main text where 'contact' was incorrectly spelt as 'contract'.

  • Funding This study was funded by the Wellcome Trust (203132).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement There are no data in this work.

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