Articles  |  ,   |  June 13, 2020

Mind the App—Considerations on the Ethical Risks of COVID-19 Apps

Article by Liciano Floridi.
Published in Philosophy & Technology. Editor Letter.


In the past months, there has been a lively debate about so-called COVID-19 apps developed to deal with the pandemic (Morley et al. 2020b). Some of the best solutions use the Bluetooth connection of mobile phones to determine contacts between people and therefore the probability of contagion, and then suggested related measures. In theory, it may seem simple. In practice, there are several ethical problems (Morley et al. 2020a), not only legal and technical ones. To understand them, it is useful to distinguish between the validation and the verification of a system, remembering that these words are used here only in the design/engineering sense, and certainly not philosophically.

The validation of a system answers the following question: “are we building the right system?” The answer is no if the app

  • is illegal. For example, the use of an app in the EU must comply with the GDPR; mind that this is necessary but not sufficient to make the app also ethically acceptable (Floridi 2018), see below:
  • is unnecessary. For example, there are better solutions;
  • is a disproportionate solution to the problem. For example, there are only a few cases in the country;
  • goes beyond the purpose for which it was designed. For example, it is used to discriminate people;
  • continues to be used even after the end of the emergency. [ . . . ]