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Experts: Contact tracing in COVID-19 fight raises privacy concerns

By
Khadija Islow
A woman administers a COVID-19 test kit at a Los Angeles Fire Department pop-up testing station on Tuesday. Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
A woman administers a COVID-19 test kit at a Los Angeles Fire Department pop-up testing station on Tuesday. Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

Major tech companies in the United States have announced efforts to create contact tracing tools to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, but experts say the technology has limits and raises privacy concerns.

"The question isn't just do all of us put it on our phone," Michelle Richardson, director at the Center of Democracy and Technology, said Tuesday during a webinar held by the Brookings Institution. "The question is, is it a good proxy for whether I am likely to get sick?"

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On April 10, Apple and Google announced they are building coronavirus tracking systems into iOS and Android. The systems will use Bluetooth technology to track where people have been and with whom they have been in close contact. Smartphone users would be able to report if they have been diagnosed with the coronavirus and the technology would then alert those who were in contact with the infected person.

Richardson said the problem is that it is unclear what benefit will come from giving people this information. In fact, it could create new fears, she said.

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"What are we supposed to do with this information once we give it to people? How do we use to serve people who actually need help?" asked Richardson. Offering people more tests, treatment and supplies instead of acting punitively will serve the whole community better, she said.

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"You still want the people doing the outreach because... that human connection makes people more forthcoming" about their diagnoses, she said. "We should see it [contact tracing] as something to complement what we are doing, not replace."

Nicol Turner Lee, fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted that "contact tracing was successful during the HIV/AIDS crisis... but you also had to educate people along the way about good practices."

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Alex Engler, another fellow at the Brookings Institution, said contact tracing puts low-income people at a disadvantage because they are less likely to own a smartphone.

The Pew Research Center found that 81 percent of Americans owned smartphones in 2019.

But Engler said people do not always update their smartphones and they also may not want to download the apps if they have privacy concerns.

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Richardson said people may not have that choice for long.

"There can be consequences for failing to participate in this if it becomes a baseline that is expected of people," she said.

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