New article analyses Covid-19 digital contact tracing apps from a business and human rights perspective

Thursday 18 June 2020

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, with governments adopting unprecedented technologically driven measures to deal with the emergency, the International Bar Association’s (IBA) Legal Policy & Research Unit (LPRU) and the IBA Business Human Rights Committee have published Digital contact tracing for the Covid-19 epidemic: a business and human rights perspective.

In particular, the following technologies are analysed:

  • an app based on quick response code as adopted in People’s Republic of China;
  • an app based on geolocalisation as adopted in South Korea; and
  • an app based on Bluetooth as adopted in Singapore, with similar models currently being considered in Europe.

In compliance with the standards set out by international human rights law, these tools are evaluated against the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality. The Covid-19 crisis is the first pandemic in which technology has been widely adopted to understand and control the contagion, but there are challenges to this.

The paper covers the limitations and derogations of human rights under a state of emergency and particular aspects of the technology, including:

  • voluntary approach;
  • purpose limitation;
  • data minimisation and time limitation;
  • transparency;
  • accountability; and
  • interoperability.

In addition, Digital contact tracing for the Covid-19 epidemic: a business and human rights perspective focuses on the role of the business sector in reducing and addressing the risks of adverse human rights impacts associated with the use of contact tracing apps. In relation to carrying out these activities, the paper asserts that companies should go ‘over and above compliance with national laws and regulations’ and, when appropriate, should exercise leverage with their partners, including governments. It further states that such functionality will be even more necessary at the end of the public health emergency, when these technologies should be phased out, when the risks of surveillance inertia, via mission creep, will be heightened.

Maria Pia Sacco, a co-author of the paper and IBA LPRU Senior Legal Advisor, said: ‘Tracking apps are often developed through public-private partnerships, in which businesses share an equal responsibility with governments to ensure they are built around legality, necessity and proportionality. Nevertheless, responsible business conduct would see businesses go beyond what is required of them by law. They should act as gatekeepers and implement technical features and procedures to identify, mitigate and address the risks of adverse human rights impacts associated with these data-intensive tools’.


Notes to the Editor

  1. Click here to download a PDF of Digital contact tracing for Covid-19 epidemic: a business and human rights perspective.
  2. Click here for information the IBA Business Human Rights Committee.
  3. Click here for information on the IBA Legal Policy & Research Unit.
  4. The International Bar Association (IBA), the global voice of the legal profession, is the foremost organisation for international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Established in 1947, shortly after the creation of the United Nations, it was born out of the conviction that an organisation made up of the world's bar associations could contribute to global stability and peace through the administration of justice.

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