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

What are 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 is the first pandemic in the age of the smartphone. Although digital communication technologies, big data and algorithms have played an important role in pandemic preparedness efforts for several years, we have seen a rapid expansion in the use of digital tools in response to the current pandemic, enabled in large part by smartphones. Both autocratic and democratic societies are now widely deploying digital surveillance technologies and digital contact tracing apps in their responses to covid-19.

Led by medical anthropologist Katerini T. Storeng, ‘The Smartphone Pandemic’ project critically examines the rise of such ‘pandemic tech’ innovations – and the companies that own them. By combining insights from anthropology, international relations, political economy and philosophy, the project studies the global norms and institutions governing the use of smartphone technologies and data in times of crisis, and the social, political and ethical implications of their use in in specific contexts.

Through ethnographic and policy research in Norway, Sierra Leone and Myanmar, the project will provide case studies of the role of digital technologies in national health authorities' response to Covid-19, and shed light on how tech companies’ experimentation with mobile tracking in past disease outbreaks inform current policy responses transnationally.


The project will provide insights into the ethical and equitable use of digital technological innovations in different political and social contexts that will be of direct relevance to policy responses. It will also contribute to interdisciplinary debates by examining:

1) How the involvement of new actors like Big Tech companies and mobile operators set the terms for pandemic preparedness and response. 

2) How different tools and practices of security, such as algorithmic systems and devices, shape how we identify, understand and respond to societal risk.

3) The political, social and ethical implications of the rise of digital health tools more generally.


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 @AureliaNeumark

    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 Aug. 17, 2022 2:00 PM