Widespread reports based on warnings issued by the UK's NHS Ethics Advisory Board now suggests that contact tracing apps won't serve everybody equally. In fact, those apps could only serve to highlight inequality in any given nation. In particular, that's how inequality affects people amid an ongoing pandemic.
The contact tracing apps in question — such as those developed by Google and Apple in the US — are meant to help advise users if they come into contact with COVID-19. But the advisory board notes, using the UK for its figures, that 21-percent of that region's adults don't own smartphones. That would leave more than 10-million people without access.
The impact here would affect those who are most at risk too. Namely, that's elders and those who aren't financially able to afford smartphones.
What does that mean for contact tracing apps worldwide?
Now, the community-wide positive impact of contact tracing should still not be underestimated, the advisory board points out. Those who don't have smartphones could still benefit from the careful behavior of those who are able to take advantage of the program. But the NHS advisory board is also not the first organization to call attention to the discrepancy.
The situation in the UK, a comparatively well-developed nation, acts as a microcosm for the rest of the world. Analysts have previously predicted that billions of users would not be able to take advantage of the apps.
The reasons for that more dire estimate are important here as well. Not every smartphone is created equal and that isn't necessarily taken into account by the advisory board's estimates. 1.5 billion global mobile users aren't on smartphones. But as many as 3.5 billion smartphones worldwide don't utilize the Bluetooth LE chips required for the contact tracing apps to work.
The figures won't be split equally across nations either, as suggested above. Instead, less developed regions will be more impacted by inequality with regard to contact tracing.
Inequality could easily spread beyond personal safety
Perhaps more importantly, the advisory board notes that inequality could extend beyond basic personal safety. Lack of access to the app could ultimately equate to denied access elsewhere.
For example, the board questions whether there is a chance the app will become "a tool for accessing currently restricted services or freedoms" in some cases. That could feasibly include cases where it's required to return to work or use public transport. Other services and 'freedoms' could potentially be impacted as well.
If the app does become a central part of re-opening, that stacks on an additional layer of inequality. Those who are already underserved and poor or who don't have access to a smartphone won't be able to take part in those activities.
That degree of inequality would mean that not is the health of millions — potentially billions — at risk. It would also put their survival and ability to remain independent at risk, among other things.
It's not immediately clear whether similar problems will impact other tracing apps planned worldwide. In the UK, at the very least, the advisory board is asking that developers take their time in order to try and address any additional inequality that's likely to occur.