Contact Tracing Apps – Help or Hinderment?

Technology giants, Apple and Google, are taking on coronavirus (COVID-19) with an app that could save your life.  It could also infringe on your privacy. The app would warn a person who came in contact with someone over the past 14 days who tested positive for COVID-19.  This is one of the first apps to use contact tracing to slow the spread of COVID-19.  Contact tracing is the process of identification of persons who may have come into contact with an infected person.

Typically, manual contact tracing can be a tedious process. Dr. Rutherford, an epidemiologist at the University of California stated it can take 90 minutes for an individual to contact trace.  It takes 60 minutes to interview the person who tested positive for COVID-19 and another 30 minutes to contact all the people the sick person remembers having contact with. Benefits of the app include saving time and increased accuracy identifying who the sick person came in contact with. “There’s an army of contact tracers being hired. Technology can make this much more efficient,” said Dr. Gunther Eysenbach, editor of the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

However, there are trade-offs in using contact tracing apps, the biggest being privacy. Lawmakers are already pushing a bill that would ensure people can’t be forced to use the technology.  The bill is called the Exposure Notification Privacy Act. According to the CNET, the bill would also “make sure that the data isn’t used for advertising or commercial purposes and that people can delete their data…[and] that notification systems only rely on ‘an authorized diagnosis’ that came from medical organizations.” 

Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington, believes that public health should be in charge of any notification system to protect people’s privacy. Saran Collins of the Public Knowlege Policy counsel said, “We need to regulate apps that provide COVID-19 exposure notification to protect a user’s privacy, prevent data misuse and preserve our civil rights — and this bill offers a roadmap for doing all three…The bill marks a valuable first step in the long road ahead to protecting Americans’ data.” 

Despite these efforts to make contact tracing apps available there still hasn’t been a lot of by-in by the states. For instance, California Gov. Gavin Newsome was a supporter of contact tracing apps early on; however, two months later his state is still not using apps or cellphone tracking technology according to Ali Bay, a spokesperson for California’s Public Health Department. “Digital tools do not replace the human capacity needed to do contact tracing,” said World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.  

Another tech idea that has come out of the coronavirus, is creating “digital visitors lists”. People would sign in to a large event with a QR code and that information would be collected by the government which could be used in the event of an outbreak. The government will be testing this idea for six-months at nightclubs, restaurants, and bars. If the information is not used then it will be deleted after four weeks. Whether this technology will also be pushed to the way-side is yet to be determined.

How do you feel about contact tracing apps? Do you think they could help or do they infringe too much on our privacy?