Hand using cellphone with digital tracking holograms projecting from the phone.

Digital Tracking of Coronavirus Presents Privacy Concerns

This week, the John Locke Foundation’s Jordan Roberts teamed up with Dr. Nicol Turner Lee of the Brookings Institution to release a research brief on digital tracking of the Coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended an increase in contact tracing. Contact tracing is the active tracking and monitoring of people potentially exposed to Coronavirus. The pair writes:

This week, Apple and Google paired up to respond to the call for digital contact tracing, which would involve subscribers voluntarily downloading an app. Both companies issued press releases about the partnership, which would first release APIs to enable interoperability with apps from public health authorities in May. The next phase of the joint project will involve a Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform to allow for more interactions between individuals who opt in and public health authorities. Both companies have asserted that the design does not collect location data or personal or health data from anyone without a positive COVID-19 diagnosis.

The installation of the app is voluntary; however, it still raises several privacy concerns. Roberts and Turner Lee explain:

The first one is related to the security and anonymity of one’s personal data. Both Apple and Google have proposed that the use of Bluetooth-enabled technology will obscure the personal identities of the infected person and the people in near proximity. However, more discussion is needed on just how anonymous the data is and whether it can be easily de-anonymized, which may discourage individuals from downloading the app…

Second, who has access to the data also matters. While both Apple and Google have made assurances around their respective company’s handling of collected data and the intent to stop tracking once the pandemic has ended, what expectations have federal and local public health authorities shared around their data collection and use? How long will the data be retained, and the longer that it is kept, what is the risk of being used for other purposes?

Digital contact tracing could be a powerful tool in slowing the spread of the virus and returning society to normal. But, in order for it to be successful, Americans will need to know for sure that their data will remain private and secure. The pair writes:

[F]ull encryption and cryptography of collected health information for those who are infected and the people with potential exposure must be the standard. Without the possibility of an enticing “back door” into the app, individuals that opt in to use the service will be better served and protected from potential misuse by government and other companies…

Engaging in public health surveillance will be critical to reduce current and future outbreaks of COVID-19. But any supplement to traditional practices must be done in ways that ensure security, transparency, and more importantly, equity, especially at a time when the U.S. is expeditiously working to keep the curve of infections flat.

Read the full piece here. Watch Roberts’ most recent segment on Carolina Journal Radio in which he discusses state-level reforms for dealing with COVID-19 here.

Brenee Goforth / Marketing and Communications Associate

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