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COVID-19 Contact Tracing is Coming

According to the CDC, contact tracing is an infectious disease control measure that has been used by local and state health department personnel for decades and should be a key strategy for preventing further spread of COVID-19. In contact tracing, public health staff, or tracers, work with a person who has tested positive for an illness to help them recall their contacts: everyone with whom they’ve been in close contact during the time they were contagious. The tracers then warn these contacts of their exposure.

Contacts are generally not told of the identity of the infected person but are provided with education and information, such as what they should be doing, like monitoring for illness, social distancing, quarantining, and the possibility that even if they don’t show symptoms of the virus, they can still be contagious. Contact tracing is intended in large part to identify and prevent the growth of potential “hot spots.”

NYS has announced that it is launching a contact tracing program and has stated that “contact tracing teams will work remotely with state-of-the-art software to develop a secure database of information on the spread of the infection.”

Building and training a staff of contact tracers is not a simple task. The Johns Hopkins Center of Health Security says the U.S. may need an army of 100,000 tracers; NYS may need as many as 17,000.

Tracing can be done manually, but to aid scalability, technology companies and some governments have proposed using contact tracing apps. These recently developed apps use mobile phone data (Bluetooth, location services technology, or a combination) to collect information about where you’ve been and with whom you’ve been in contact, thereby tracing paths of infection should you come down with the virus. Affected contacts would be notified, and affected businesses alerted so they can take precautions like deep cleaning.

Tracing apps can increase the efficiency of tracers’ work. Apple and Google have collaborated to develop tracking technology which, these companies say, provides a high level of privacy protection. But apps can raise privacy issues. For example, will shady government actors misuse information they collect through tracing? Will app makers use information collected through their apps for commercial purposes beyond tracing?

At present, tracing apps are opt-in, meaning that a user must download a tracing app on his/her phone to enable the technology (which raises the question of just how useful these apps are if people don’t opt-in). But before you download a tracing app, look into the technology. Understand how it tracks locations and contacts, what it does with the data, where it is retained, and whether it will be shared or sold with others for purposes beyond contact tracing.  Get as much information as possible about how your privacy will be handled. As with any new technology product, don’t download an app until you’re fully informed.  

By Gille Ann Rabbin, Esq., CIPP/US, CIPP/E

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