Contact Tracing

Data Collection and Privacy


Introductory Computer Science

Class Time:

Two 1-hour classes

Last Modified:

Fri 10 December 2021

Software Development and Design
Requirements and Specifications
Data Collection

This course module, designed for use in a first-year programming course, gets students thinking about ethical issues that arise from the technology they will build. The module is on the topic of contract tracing, employed during pandemics and other disease outbreaks to limit the spread of diseases such as COVID-19. The module includes pre-class, in-class, and post-class components. As students learn how a graph can represent contacts and consider the data that a contact tracking system might record, they are guided through an active learning exercise to discover an issue: Private information can sometimes be inferred from a contact tracing system. The ethical issue of balancing public health against individual privacy arises naturally from the technical discussion.

In the remainder of the module, students learn how to imagine and discuss the perspectives of different stakeholders on this ethical trade-off. For example, an overwhelmed acute care doctor has different priorities than someone with precarious employment and a chronic illness, who is afraid their private information might be leaked. Rather than trying to find the "right" answer, discussing these diverse viewpoints allows students to practice noticing and raising ethical questions and contemplating how different software design choices impact ethical issues—a skill that is critical to their work, whether as academic researchers or industry software developers.

Students who complete this module learn that ethical considerations are a critical component of software design.

With only 50 minutes of in-class time and short pre- and post-class activities, this module packs a large impact into a short amount of time—whether as a stand-alone module or combined with the follow-up module, "Embedded Ethics: Pandemic Exposure Notification Systems and Giving Ethical Justifications."

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In this follow-up to "Embedded Ethics: Pandemic Contact Tracing and Ethical Trade-Offs", students revisit the trade-off they discovered between protecting privacy and gathering data to support the fight against COVID-19. This module comprises pre-class, in-class, and post-class activities. In the technical portion of the module, students learn that seeming solutions like anonymization won't solve privacy concerns. Through a collaborative active-learning exercise, they discover that a policy of limited collection more effectively protects data privacy: if location and private health information are not collected, they cannot be leaked. However, increased privacy comes at the cost of lowered public health protections. In the Philosophy portion of this module, students return to the stakeholders they met in the first module, with a different ethical goal in mind: justifying a design decision to a stakeholder who would have preferred a different ethical trade-off. They practise this through a second collaborative activity and a short, written, homework exercise.

Together these two modules demonstrate how technical design decisions can be ethically informed. After completing these embedded ethics modules, students will be better prepared to recognize and discuss ethical issues, and take them into account in their design decisions—skills that will be increasingly important to their careers.

This module was developed by Maryam Majedi, Emma McClure, and Benjamin Wald, with significant contributions from Diane Horton and Sheila McIlraith.


You can download all the materials for this module (except videos) using the following button, or download them individually using the links below.

Part 1: Pandemic Contact Tracing and Ethical Trade-offs

Pre-class Material

In-class Material


Part 2: Pandemic Exposure Notification Systems and Giving Ethical Justifications

Pre-class Material

In-class Material