The Lack of Federal Privacy Policy Causes Inconsistency with Tracing Apps | Citizens Against Government Waste

The Lack of Federal Privacy Policy Causes Inconsistency with Tracing Apps

The WasteWatcher

Frances Floresca and Emily Kleck

In order to help stop the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), many states have adopted contact tracing.  Contact tracing identifies people who have an infectious disease as well as people who have been in contact with them so that government health officials can ask those who have been exposed to self-isolate and self-quarantine.  Some states are adopting applications to conduct contact tracing, while others have hired human contact tracers.  

Just like wearing face masks and social distancing, contact tracing will help reduce the spread of COVID-19.  

Some countries, like China and Israel, have mandated contact tracing for their citizens.  However, in the U.S., individual privacy concerns are being taken into consideration as states begin to implement contact tracing, for now on a purely voluntary basis.  

The Chinese government tracks its citizens through software that categorizes their health into color codes (red, yellow, or green) to show the risk of having coronavirus.  While this has eased lockdown measures, it is not clear whether this tracking system will become permanent.  Citizens have been required to register for a QR code to enter personal information along with a series of questions related to the coronavirus and health.  After that, it gives them their color code.  These QR scans are required to enter buildings and certain regions in China.  

In March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the use of cyber tech normally used for counter-terrorism to track COVID-19.  He originally planned to refrain from using this tracking application for citizens, however, the Israeli Attorney General has approved of tracking the phone locations of COVID-19 patients to determine who else was in close proximity to the patient and may have been exposed to the virus. 

In the U.S., individuals place great value on their privacy and individualism.  The imposition of forced or mandated tracking applications would not sit well with the American people.  However, many states are looking at new apps to help stop the spread of COVID-19. 

In April 2020, Apple and Google teamed up to develop a contact tracing program for public health officials that would allow them to create an app for contact tracing in their states.  Once created by public health officials, the app would be available for anyone with a smartphone to download.  Using Bluetooth technology, the program would track anonymized user location data, while prioritizing privacy.  The Apple-Google program would require users to give consent to allow the app to access their location and other data, meaning that the use of the app is completely voluntary, and users would be notified when their information is being shared.  Once a user has accepted the terms of use, the application would maintain a log of all other people that the user comes in contact with who also have downloaded the app and notifies users if they have come into contact with someone who has COVID-19.  

Alabama, North Dakota, South Carolina, and Virginia have committed to using this system to develop an app for their states.  Because the Apple-Google program does not disclose as much information as other applications may, states choosing this system have decided to prioritize data privacy over accuracy.  

There are other programs being developed by other states who have chosen to create their own contact tracing application, rather than using the Apple-Google program. 

For example, Gov. Gary Herbert (R-Utah) enlisted the help of a social media company, Twenty, to build a contact tracing app.  Their app is called “Healthy Together,” and it uses both GPS and Bluetooth technology to track user location.  Utah chose this approach because they wanted to be able to send information to public health departments, and the anonymous component of the Apple-Google system does not allow for this.  Similar to the Apple-Google program, “Healthy Together” is also opt-in application, addressing data privacy concerns.  One month after its April 2020 release, the app had already gained more than 45,000 users.  

California has chosen to rely on humans for contact tracing.  More than 20,000 state government employees currently working from home will assist with the task.  Instead of letting GPS or Bluetooth do all the work, a group of teleworking librarians, tax assessors, and similar workers are individually reaching out to California residents.  Instead of receiving a notification on a smartphone as one would with a contact tracing app, residents will receive a phone call from one of these 20,000 contact tracers if they come into contact with someone who has been affected by the coronavirus and they will be asked to self-quarantine.  California’s effort to train these workers is one of the largest such programs in the country.

States should continue to protect privacy as they take steps to stop the spread of coronavirus.