Calling Police Investigations ‘Contact Tracing’ Could Block Efforts to Stop Covid-19

Privacy fears may keep people from downloading proximity apps

People raise their hands and shout slogans as they protest at a makeshift memorial in honor of George Floyd, on June 2, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

After the May 25 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer was recorded and streamed on Facebook, protests against police brutality erupted across the city.

Following days of demonstrations last week, Minneapolis police and the Minnesota State Patrol arrested dozens of protesters. On May 30, in a televised press conference that was also broadcast on Twitter, Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said that law enforcement had begun “contact tracing” those taken into custody.

“We’ve begun making arrests,” Harrington said. “We’ve begun analyzing the data of who we’ve arrested. We’ve begun doing, almost similar to our Covid [work]. It’s contact tracing. Who are they associated with? What platforms are they advocating for?”

He used the term “contact tracing” as an analogy; in reality, he was referring to routine police work. But the damage had been done. The news that Minnesota authorities were carrying out contact tracing on demonstrators swept Twitter, tapping into fears that a tool intended to track cases of the coronavirus could be abused by police. Now, public health experts worry that Harrington’s misleading remarks could undermine both traditional and digital contact tracing efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19.

“It was an unfortunate use of the term,” Sarah Kreps, a professor of government and law at Cornell University who studies surveillance systems, told OneZero.

Contact tracing is an established public health practice that involves interviewing someone who tested positive for an infectious disease in order to identify and notify others who may have come into contact with that person. People who have been potentially exposed are encouraged to self-quarantine at home to avoid infecting others, making contact tracing an important public health tool for containing disease outbreaks. Now, states are hiring contact tracers by the thousands to call and text individuals at risk of getting sick with Covid-19. A total of 184,000 contact tracers could be needed in the United States, according to researchers at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.

“Public health officials are ethically — and, in most states, legally — bound to use the information they collect for public health purposes only. We do not share contact data with law enforcement, immigration, or anyone else,” Lisa M. Lee, an epidemiologist and bioethicist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, tells OneZero. “If people are unclear about the differences, there is a chance that they will be less cooperative with health officials, which would severely hamper our ability to stop this deadly infection,” she says.

Italy’s contact tracing app Immuni, pictured here, uses Apple and Google’s software. Photo: Nicolò Campo/LightRocket/Getty Images

A lack of trust in contact tracing could also weaken the usefulness of digital tools designed to control the pandemic. A number of countries have developed and released smartphone apps to notify people if they’ve come in contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus. And last month, Apple and Google teamed up to release a system for developers to use to design their own contact tracing apps. Apple and Google’s system provides anonymous alerts by using Bluetooth data rather than location information, like some other apps that have been rolled out.

The United States has yet to release a nationwide app, but some states are developing their own. Even before protests swept the nation, there were worries that such apps could be an invasion of privacy.

Contact tracing apps will only be useful if enough people use them. After Harrington’s misplaced use of the term “contact tracing,” many people could be less inclined to do so if they believe the information they provide to an app could be used by law enforcement. “Given that the success or effectiveness of digital contact tracing will rely on people having the trust to opt into this system, I think it was an especially damaging appropriation of the term,” Kreps says.

Unlike some of the apps created by countries like France, Apple and Google’s approach is a decentralized one, in which data collected is stored on users’ phones rather than through a central database, she says. A few states have already said that they plan to use Apple and Google’s technology.

“By decentralizing the data, the government is not going to have the data, the tech firms aren’t going to have the data. But now I worry people are going to think, ‘Oh, my local government is going to know that I was at these protests,’” Kreps says. “I think we’ll have people be very wary of downloading and using an app, and that’s unfortunate.”

Those privacy concerns may be justifiable when it comes to some apps. A recent analysis by privacy software maker Jumbo found that a contact tracing app released by the state of North Dakota in April violated its own privacy policy by sharing users’ location and other personal data with an outside company. The app did not use Apple and Google’s software, but according to North Dakota’s Covid-19 response page, Care19 will soon incorporate the companies’ joint Bluetooth proximity tracking technology.

With heightened concerns over privacy amid the ongoing protests against police brutality, it may be even harder for Americans to trust Covid-19 contact tracing apps, just as some states are rolling them out. And as the country begins to reopen, that means more challenges for quelling current and future outbreaks.

Former staff writer at Medium, where I covered biotech, genetics, and Covid-19 for OneZero, Future Human, Elemental, and the Coronavirus Blog.

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