Contract tracing pits privacy against public health

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Next up, contact tracing.

Health officials say closely tracking new cases of COVID-19 is the best way to prevent another spike in infections. That means once someone tests positive, officials must find out with whom they’ve been in contact. Those people are then notified and asked to self quarantine.

NICK EICHER, HOST: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says extensive contract tracing is key to having life return to normal. But tracking cases manually is labor intensive, time consuming, and expensive. States just don’t have the resources. So, they’re turning to tech companies to create smartphone apps that do the heavy lifting for them.

As you might imagine, that comes with its own set of drawbacks. WORLD reporter Anna Johansen has our story.

ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: Tracking infections to slow the spread of a disease isn’t a new idea.

KITCHEN: Contact tracing has been a part of every successful pandemic response for at least three decades.

That’s Klon Kitchen. He studies technology policy for the Heritage Foundation. He says this old concept is just getting a shiny new update for the fight against the novel coronavirus. 

Tech companies are rushing to create apps that notify users automatically if they’ve been in contact with someone who has COVID-19. In the United States, almost every app will use the same basic platform.

KITCHEN: Apple and Google have recently updated their operating systems and built what’s called an API to allow app developers to build a digital contact tracing app that will operate on their phones. This API is essentially a batch of code and includes rules and tools for how those apps can work.

If you opt in to the system and download a contact tracing app, your phone will start sending Bluetooth signals to the phones around you. When you’re close to another person for more than, say, five minutes, both of your phones make a note. If the other person later tests positive for COVID-19 and they enter that information in their app, you receive an anonymous notification. And you’re told you ought to self-quarantine for two weeks. It’s based on proximity, not physical location.

That’s one way to do it. Another method uses actual GPS tracking. Vern Dosch is working on contact tracing apps in North Dakota. His state is using the GPS method.

DOSCH: The reason that we decided to go that direction was just really because of the demographics and the geography of North Dakota. Being a more rural state, we thought it was more valuable to the health department to know where a positive case might have been, rather than who they’ve been in contact with. 

But actively using GPS takes massive amounts of battery power. And having it just run in the background instead means the results aren’t as accurate.

DOSCH: The biggest complaint we had on the GPS app was it wasn’t accurate enough, or it wasn’t picking up places that it should have picked up, or places that it shouldn’t have.

The Bluetooth method has its drawbacks, too. The signal can get disrupted by walls and people and furniture. So you might be within 6 feet of someone, but Bluetooth doesn’t log it because your phone is in your pocket and the signal is weak.

The tech isn’t perfect. But the bigger obstacle is that not enough people are using it.

KREPS: Estimates are that about 60 percent of people would have to download this for it to be effective.

Sarah Kreps is a professor of government at Cornell University. She says people in the United States are especially leery of the tech because they don’t want the government to have their personal information.

KREPS: The early experience in Asia, where I think it was centralized data storage, data that was then made accessible, let’s say to the state of Singapore, I think kind of created a lot of baggage in terms of how Americans think about these tools.

According to Kreps, those fears are not unreasonable. Big tech doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to protecting information.

KREPS: So I think all of this kind of comes together to create a lot of skepticism that these tools will actually keep what is very sensitive data, like your health data, private.

Klon Kitchen says he encourages that kind of skepticism. But he also says it’s a bit of a moot point.

KITCHEN: I think the point I would make is that, all of the information that you were concerned these companies would be collecting, they’re already collecting.

Kitchen says that’s a separate policy issue to address. But he also says the Apple/Google Bluetooth system has some decent protections in place. For example, they’ve set up rules to govern who can and cannot see the information.

KITCHEN: This information cannot be passed on to third parties like law enforcement or the intelligence community. It can only be used by public health organizations, specifically in response to the COVID-19.

That’s actually more data protection than manual contact tracing has. But Kitchen says there’s another side to contact tracing that could soon cause even more privacy concerns.

KITCHEN: So one of the things that we’re going to see, post COVID-19, is a significant rise in commercial pandemic surveillance.

As more and more companies reopen, they could start requiring their employees to download a contact tracing app.

KITCHEN: An employer is typically well within their rights to require employees to adhere to certain, you know, safety rules or other conditions of employment.

Even organizations like schools or churches could do the same thing.

But Kitchen says it’s still your choice what apps you download and what information you share. He encourages people to be thoughtful and cautious.

KITCHEN: It is healthy for consumers to engage that question and to think more carefully about what information they want to give and not give.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Anna Johansen.

(AP Photo/Stephen Groves) The Care19 app is seen on a cell phone screen, Friday, May 22, 2020, in Sioux Falls, S.D. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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