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The Smartphone Pandemic: Mobile technologies and data in the COVID-19 response

What were the social, political and ethical implications of the rapid introduction of new smartphone technologies in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic? 

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About the project

COVID-19 was the first pandemic in the age of the smartphone. New digital technologies such as contact tracing apps and mobile localization data was used to model, monitor, and control the pandemic, often building on experimentation in humanitarian contexts and low-income countries. The rapid adoption of digital technologies by both authoritarian and democratic governments in the early days of the pandemic invoked images of dystopian “Big Brother” digital surveillance, as well as utopian hopes that technology could help curb the pandemic.

The Smartphone Pandemic project aimed to provide insights into the political and societal implications of this rapidly evolving use of smartphone technologies and data in official responses to the pandemic. Based on case studies within diverse political and health systems contexts, including Sierra Leone, Myanmar, Japan, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and Norway, the project analyzed national experiences and global norms and institutions governing the use of smartphone technologies and data in times of crisis.

Main findings

Below are some of the main findings of the project across the different study settings: 

The growing power of tech corporations 

One of the main findings of the project is that the pandemic led to new forms of partnerships between Big Tech, telecom corporations and public health authorities. The partnerships focused on digital contact tracing, epidemic modelling, and public health communication through social media platforms and chat bots. The partnerships challenged established public health norms and principles of digital sovereignty, and highlights tech corporations' growing power to influence public health agendas.

Apps had limited impact

The use and impact of digital solutions was dependent on contextual factors, but across most study settings, apps designed to locate, contact trace, and report on social distancing had limited public health impact, did not solve governance challenges, and often failed to help the people most likely to become sick from the virus. The project findings highlight how digital interventions have alarming potential to distract from traditional public health responses, and to undermine practices of social justice and equity in global health.

Ethical considerations should be included 

Digital technologies were implemented with weak or lacking regulation at global and national levels and based on experimentation in low-income countries that rarely benefits populations in these countries. There were many ethical issues associated with smartphone-based technologies used during the pandemic (issues related to privacy, curtailment of civil liberties, and techno-elite determination of health policies), which highlight the need to involve ethicists in pandemic preparedness and response, who can take a broader public health approach.

The need to challenge uncritical techno-optimism

The findings of the project challenge uncritical techno-optimism within pandemic preparedness and response thinking and underscore that future public health emergencies can only be addressed through sustained, equitable and cross-societal investments in public health and pandemic preparedness, prioritizing those most at risk for getting, spreading, and dying of pandemics.  


The Smartphone Pandemic project has contributed to an emerging field of critical social scientific research on digital technologies and data as pandemic preparedness and response tools. The Smartphone Pandemic project is one of 30 projects that has been granted funds from the COVID-19 Emergency Call at The Research Council of Norway.


    June 2020 - June 2022

    Social media: Twitter

    Hashtag: #smartphone_pandemic

    Profiles: @KStoreng @AdeBengyP @sfparr @sridhartweet @tom_traill @SusanShepler @SRobe01

    Main publications

    News and media


    Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, 2022, When indicators fail: SPAR, the invisible measure of pandemic preparedness, Policy and Society

    Sridhar Venkatapuram, 2021, Pandemic as revelation, Journal of Global Ethics

    Stephen L. Roberts and Patty Kostkova, 2021, Disease Surveillance, Digital Futures, and Data-Sharing in a World 'After' COVID-19, Global Policy

    Katerini Tagmatarchi Storeng, 2021, Digital Technology and the Political Determinants of Health Inequities: Special Issue Introduction, in Special Issue: Digital technology and the political determinants of health inequities, Global Policy.

    Antoine de Bengy Puyvallée & Katerini Tagmatarchi Storeng, 2021, The Big Digital Contract Tracing Experiement, in Special Issue: Digital technology and the political determinants of health inequities, Global Policy.

    Gabrielle Samuel, Stephen L. Roberts, Amelia Fiske, Federica Lucivero and others, 2021, COVID-19 contact tracing apps: UK public perceptions, Critical Public Health

    Katerini Tagmatarchi Storeng & Antoine de Bengy Puyvallée, 2021, The Smartphone Pandemic: How Big Tech and public health authorities partner in the digital response to Covid-19, Global Public Health.

    Antoine de Bengy Puyvallée, 2020, Book Review: Data Justice and COVID-19, Global Perspectives. Security and Dialogue.

    Susan Erikson, 2020, COVID-19 Mobile Phone Apps Fail the Most Vulnerable, Global Policy Journal.

    Martin French, Stephen L. Roberts et. al, 2020, Corporate contract tracing as a pandemic response, Critical Public Health.

    Stephen L. Roberts, 2020, Incorporating Non-Expert Evidence into Surveillance and Early Detection of Public Health Emergencies, Institute of Development Studies.

    Blogs and other entries

    Stephen L. Roberts and Inge Kaul, Preparing for the post-pandemic world (November 2021) (audio)

    Katerini T. Storeng and Antoine de Bengy Puyvallée, Big Tech and the digital response to Covid-19 (February 2021).

    Katerini T. Storeng and Antoine de Bengy Puyvallée, Folkehelsegevinsten av Smittestopp må dokumenteres (February 2021).

    Katerini T. Storeng and Antoine de Bengy Puyvallée, Smarttelefonpandemien (February 2021).

    Stephen L. Roberts, Audrey Prost, and Lele Rangaka, Amidst a global pandemic, who is AI for? (February 2021). 

    Jonas Engestøl Wettre, Lav Kvalitet, usikker nytteverdi (December 2020).

    Katerini T. Storeng and Antoine de Bengy Puyvallée, Det store Smittestopp-eksperimentet (December 2020).

    Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, A pandemic letter from Tokyo (November 2020).

    Katerini T. Storeng and Antoine de Bengy Puyvallée, Hva gjør at noen samfunn lykkes bedre med koronahåndtering? (October 2020).

    Katerini T. Storeng, Koronakrisen gir mer makt til de mektige (October 2020).

    Sridhar Venkatapuram, Self-interested altruism and global health crises (October 2020)

    Katerini T. Storeng, Pandemiteknologien setter mer enn personvernet på spill (July 2020).

    Katerini T. Storeng, Digital Technologies will not save us from the COVID-19 pandemic (June 2020).

    Stephen L. Roberts, Harnessing Big Data, Tracking COVID-19: Technological Panacea or Digital Pandora's Box? (June 2020) (audio)

    Katerini T. Storeng and Antoine de Bengy Puyvallée, Pandemipodden (April 2020).

    Stephen L. Roberts, Shoshana Zuboff, and Yuan Yang, Coronavirus: Is mass surveillance here to stay? (May 2020) (audio)

    Stephen L. Roberts, Security, surveillance and shambles: the UK’s contact-tracing app (May 2020).

    Stephen L. Roberts, Tracking Covid-19 using big data and big tech: a digital Pandora's Box (April 2020).

    View all works in Cristin

    Tags: Global Health, Global Health Security, Sierra Leone, Myanmar, Digital Health
    Published June 9, 2020 8:35 PM - Last modified Nov. 29, 2022 2:25 PM