“Warning! You’re entering a sick zone”: The construction of risk and privacy implications of disease tracking apps

Scott S.D. Mitchell (Department of Communication, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada)

Online Information Review

ISSN: 1468-4527

Publication date: 14 October 2019

Abstract

Purpose

Traditional public health methods for tracking contagious diseases are increasingly complemented with digital tools, which use data mining, analytics and crowdsourcing to predict disease outbreaks. In recent years, alongside these public health tools, commercial mobile apps such as Sickweather have also been released. Sickweather collects information from across the web, as well as self-reports from users, so that people can see who is sick in their neighborhood. The purpose of this paper is to examine the privacy and surveillance implications of digital disease tracking tools.

Design/methodology/approach

The author performed a content and platform analysis of two apps, Sickweather and HealthMap, by using them for three months, taking regular screenshots and keeping a detailed user journal. This analysis was guided by the walkthrough method and a cultural-historical activity theory framework, taking note of imagery and other content, but also the app functionalities, including characteristics of membership, “rules” and parameters of community mobilization and engagement, monetization and moderation. This allowed me to study HealthMap and Sickweather as modes of governance that allow for (and depend upon) certain actions and particular activity systems.

Findings

Draw on concepts of network power, the surveillance assemblage, and Deleuze’s control societies, as well as the data gathered from the content and platform analysis, the author argues that disease tracking apps construct disease threat as omnipresent and urgent, compelling users to submit personal information – including sensitive health data – with little oversight or regulation.

Originality/value

Disease tracking mobile apps are growing in popularity yet have received little attention, particularly regarding privacy concerns or the construction of disease risk.

Keywords

Citation

Mitchell, S.S.D. (2019), "“Warning! You’re entering a sick zone”: The construction of risk and privacy implications of disease tracking apps", Online Information Review, Vol. 43 No. 6, pp. 1046-1062. https://doi.org/10.1108/OIR-03-2018-0075

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Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

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