Communicable disease surveillance ethics in the age of big data and new technology

Gwendolyn L. Gilbert*, Chris Degeling, Jane Johnson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)
67 Downloads (Pure)


Surveillance is essential for communicable disease prevention and control. Traditional notification of demographic and clinical information, about individuals with selected (notifiable) infectious diseases, allows appropriate public health action and is protected by public health and privacy legislation, but is slow and insensitive. Big data–based electronic surveillance, by commercial bodies and government agencies (for profit or population control), which draws on a plethora of internet- and mobile device–based sources, has been widely accepted, if not universally welcomed. Similar anonymous digital sources also contain syndromic information, which can be analysed, using customised algorithms, to rapidly predict infectious disease outbreaks, but the data are nonspecific and predictions sometimes misleading. However, public health authorities could use these online sources, in combination with de-identified personal health data, to provide more accurate and earlier warning of infectious disease events—including exotic or emerging infections—even before the cause is confirmed, and allow more timely public health intervention. Achieving optimal benefits would require access to selected data from personal electronic health and laboratory (including pathogen genomic) records and the potential to (confidentially) re-identify individuals found to be involved in outbreaks, to ensure appropriate care and infection control. Despite existing widespread digital surveillance and major potential community benefits of extending its use to communicable disease control, there is considerable public disquiet about allowing public health authorities access to personal health data. Informed public discussion, greater transparency and an ethical framework will be essential to build public trust in the use of new technology for communicable disease control.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)173-187
Number of pages15
JournalAsian Bioethics Review
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2019
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2019. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • Big Data
  • Communicable Disease Surveillance
  • Electronic Medical Records
  • Pathogen Genomics


Dive into the research topics of 'Communicable disease surveillance ethics in the age of big data and new technology'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this