A smarter way to trace the spread of COVID-19 without violating your privacy

Using cellphones for contact tracing is not a quick fix, and it runs the risk of tapping into our private data.

SHARE A smarter way to trace the spread of COVID-19 without violating your privacy

“Just think about all the ways you use your phones. All the places it goes with you,” writes Sapna Khatri of the ACLU of Illinois. “Now imagine giving the government or another third party access to all that information.”

Laurie Dieffembacq/Belga

Decision-makers across the country are exploring tools they can use in the battle against COVID-19. The latest device to be considered? The smartphone in your hand.

Many believe that the same phone you use to stay connected with your loved ones, get breaking news and play games might slow down the spread of COVID-19. But using our phones for this purpose is not a quick fix, and it runs the risk of tapping into private data stored on them. 

Just think about all the ways you use your phones. All the places it goes with you. All the information you share with it. Now imagine giving the government or another third party access to all that information. 

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The scenario is both incredibly scary and entirely plausible. We already unknowingly share lots of data about ourselves with companies. So, it is unnerving to see developers create new models of contact tracing for the coronavirus that access especially sensitive personal information.

Generally speaking, contact tracing is the process of working backwards from someone who has tested positive for a disease to determine who else they came in contact with, and possibly exposed to the disease. Anyone that may have been exposed is then notified and given information about testing, treatment and ways to stay safe.

This method of manual contact tracing has been tried and tested through a number of public health crises, and continues to be use in today. From the Ebola outbreak to combating the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, manual contact tracing has shown that it can work, as long as it remains voluntary, the data is secure as required by HIPPA, and not used for enforcement purposes.

Some tech developers want to go further to trace cases of COVID-19, creating tech-assisted contact tracing, or “TACT” models that use our phones.

Yet, none of these proposals — for all the promising talk — have proven to be both effective and privacy-protective. Though there are ways to build in privacy protections, such as making sure the data always remains anonymous and is not stored in one centralized location, there are realistic barriers to a successful smartphone-based model. From being inherently unreliable due to their use of GPS or WIFI signals that may not always work, to only working if a user as a Bluetooth-enabled device, TACT models are not the answer we are searching for. 

So, where does this leave us? Is there a role for technology in all of this?

Yes. It just takes a different form than the TACT models Apple, Google and other tech giants have proposed so far. 

Instead of using technology to do the tracing right now, we need to look at how technology can support manual contact tracing efforts. Chicago and the State of Illinois embrace this view. 

In the last two weeks, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot have announced plans to invest in manual contact tracing efforts. This means that in addition to expanding testing resources, the government will hire and train people to talk to anyone who has been infected and notify others who may have been exposed to COVID-19. 

Instead of using our phones as a surveillance tool to track our location or access our Bluetooth signals, Illinois is exploring options to share critical information and resources with us through our phones without accessing our personal data. Chicago has already taken this step by providing its residents with a “COVID Coaching” tool that focuses on sharing resources instead of invading user privacy.

The Illinois approach builds on manual contact tracing and uses our phones to complement those efforts in a way that will reach more people and protect our privacy. But even with this privacy-protective approach, the government is not creating a magic pill to halt the spread of COVID-19. Decision-makers need to learn from their past failures and heed the warnings shared by advocates as they work to roll-out contact tracing efforts. 

Specifically, the tools need to be used solely for public health purposes, remain voluntary and limited to containing the spread of COVID-19. If we do that, we may have an important tool in our fight against COVID-19 right now, and can work towards building a framework for privacy-protective TACT models in the future.

Sapna Khatri is an advocacy and policy fellow the ACLU of Illinois.

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