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We will never know exactly how effective digital health passes were: Ada Lovelace report

But stakeholders can insist on understanding impacts before repurposing the tech
We will never know exactly how effective digital health passes were: Ada Lovelace report

Measures like contact tracing apps and digital vaccine certificates were rolled out without a clear idea of what would constitute evidence that they were effective, resulting in a predictably murky picture of whether the mass data collection they entailed was worth it, according to a new report from the Ada Lovelace Institute.

Lessons from the App Store’ is accompanied by a ‘COVID-19 Data Explorer,’ which offers evidence of the kinds of data collected by 34 countries, along with their health outcomes.

The report considers how technologies were deployed to help during the pandemic, how responsibilities were divided between businesses developing the technology and the policymakers deploying it, and the opinions and experiences of members of the public who used the digital tools. It follows previous reports on how to realize the intended benefits of digital health passes.

The Institute is left with three questions the work leaves outstanding. The report authors wonder if contact tracing apps and digital vaccine “passports” will continue to be used, and what will happen to the data, as well as how the related infrastructure will persist in health and digital identity systems. Finally, they ask how technologies used during the pandemic affected public attitudes towards data-driven technologies more generally.

On the second count, Ada Lovelace sees benefits, but also has concerns: “These changes in digital identity and health ecosystems can provide significant economic and societal benefits to individuals and nations. But they should be well designed and governed in order to benefit everyone in society. In this context, it is necessary to continue monitoring the evolution of COVID-19 technologies into new digital platforms and to understand their legislative, technical and societal legacies.”

The report argues that the digital identity industry lobbied heavily for vaccine passports. Saudi Arabia’s Tawakkalna app, originally launched for contact tracing purposes, has been developed “into a comprehensive digital identity system,” according to the report.

In addition to repurposing tech designed to fend off a health crisis, the report authors suggest that the health passes accelerated digital identity adoption by setting new precedents and norms.

The key recommendation drawn from the report’s conclusions is that if these impacts are to be controlled, governments will have to work together with civil society and the technology industry to understand them.

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