Entering a Land of No Return – Contact Tracing in the Era of COVID-19

The COVID-19 global health crisis brought about a reality few could imagine in their lifetime. Even those in the United States, who experienced the HIV/AIDS epidemic and 9/11 lockdown measures, have never quite seen something like the current global state of affairs in 2020. Bills, food, and need to travel have all pushed people to demand the lowering of restrictions with the hope of returning to what the nation looked like before the virus. But rewinding to what life outside of the home was before the spread of COVID-19 requires some very new habits and allowances, especially in the form of technological tracking and tracing via mobile devices. 

With a virus that has the tendency to find hosts who travel asymptomatically, health providers and the CDC have agreed that there needs to be some sort of contact tracing mechanisms available. But as technology companies and governments team together to build contact tracing applications to stop the spread of COVID-19, how do we go back? Is there any chance that once we have contact tracing in place, we can return to a world where technology companies and governments don’t have a heightened presence in our individual lives?

Spread of COVID-19 from spring breakers in Florida (Source:CNN Business).

Tracing in the United States

While other nations have speedily enacted measures to facilitate contact tracing, in the United States, technological efforts against COVID-19 seem to just be jumping off the ground. After the release of a map showing where spring breakers in Florida went after their vacations, spanning various regions across the country, many became aware of the impact mobile tracking could have, not only on illustrating the spread of the virus, but also towards mitigating it. Companies that traditionally use location services for weather and navigation services have begun to anonymously illustrate movement. Now, they are looking at whether such insight into where people are and have been can be applied towards contact tracing. Google and Apple have decided to leap forward as two technology giants willing to help tackle the spread of COVID-19 and assist in government efforts. The two companies are in the process of developing an exposure notification system to help communities better contact trace and self-isolate when necessary. Via Bluetooth technology, this application would notify people who have been in close proximity to users who have tested positive for the virus (and have documented so in the app).

Source: TechCrunch.

What Contact Tracing in America Might Really Mean: What We Should Be Asking Ourselves

From the outside, contact tracing seems like a fairly painless and rapid process to implement. The vast majority of people have mobile smartphones, and companies with the technological capability and required data are willing to build the product. However, the stark reality behind all of this is that private corporations with large amounts of data on citizens are now working with the government to build a system of tracking and tracing civilians. The privacy and anonymity of the public is at jeopardy when this team of political and technological powers releases the reigns of consumer protections. This should be ringing alarms and casting sirens among all: once contact tracing infrastructure is in place, how do we scale back from a society where the government can use private corporations to track and trace its citizens?

A historic look at post 9/11 US tells us that most technological advances during a crisis are usually here to stay and don’t seem to revert, even though attitudes towards privacy may. Biomonitors, imaging scanners, and explosive trace detection devices were all born from 9/11, and have all advanced and remained in place ten years after. On top of this, while live surveillance recordings were adopted in airports as a mechanism to prevent attacks, other industries such as retail stores began to implement such security measures as well. Technological interventions for security remained, advanced within their domain, and spread to others as well. After a horrible event and tragic crisis, citizens and leaders were willing to trade the privacy of individual citizens for national security and the sake of the public good. I believe the nation may find itself in a very similar situation now, and will likely lack a planned technological downscaling process after the COVID-19 pandemic. What perhaps is most frightening about this is that it is happening right under the nation’s nose without much public awareness.

What’s Already Happened

Thus far, HIPAA regulations have been relaxed such that hospitals and vendors have an easier time sharing patient medical records with public health officials. According to STAT News, “Apple and Google’s life sciences arm, Verily, are partnering with state and federal governments to conduct digital screening of patients that involves collection of data on their symptoms, recent travel, location, age, and underlying health conditions.” If the measures taken in countries like China, South Korea, and Singapore are an indication of what’s to come, it may be the case that much more invasive data collection and tracing may take hold in the US.

It is important to note that this is all very necessary work to combat a dangerous virus, and it is quite revolutionary that companies are coming together in this manner to confront a global health crisis. But it poses serious privacy challenges. Democratic Senators Robert Menendez, Richard Blumenthal, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker have collectively written a letter to CEO Tim Cook regarding private health data, requesting some specificity about Apple’s COVID screening tool.

Korean health officials monitor body temperatures of travelers at Incheon International Airport amid the SARS outbreak in 2004 (Source: The Atlantic).

Challenges to Scaling Back

The use of GPS data and Bluetooth technology comes with clear threats to the privacy and transparency of citizens’ whereabouts at a given moment. Yet perhaps what may be more threatening, and what differentiates this crisis from 9/11, is the role private companies play in this national effort. While technology companies have exposed the government’s lack of preparedness and delays in taking action. However, it is of utmost importance to question what role private companies, who are not bound to protect and not exploit the public, will play in governance for future endeavors. While technology companies may brand themselves as helping the nation return to normal, they are simultaneously building a new normal, consisting of government trust of private companies in public relations, new levels of access to otherwise personal and private data—especially sensitive health information—and new and more subtle forms of surveillance. 

Another challenge posed to scaling back, however, is that returning to the nation’s state before COVID-19 is plainly not a good sell, as this can be seen as reverting to an unsafe and less controlled time in which people were unaware of what illnesses they may have been exposed to in a given day. Such a reversion may look more like an unsafe decision than a choice that protects liberties that had previously been violated. It is inevitable that after this global health crisis, the world will function differently. Some norms may never return, whether that be shaking hands or keeping your specific geo-location and health information private. Above all, we must question what is worth bringing back to normal and what isn’t. 

Thinking Ahead

While the technology that’s currently developing may be necessary now, these interventions may not be necessary later, and citizens deserve to know what happens to their data once it is collected, where it goes, and how it can be used against them by public and private institutions. Additionally, the reality is that even if we give up all this privacy, the technology may still not help

As ties strengthen between the government and private corporations who can freely exploit personal data and profit off of surveillance capitalism, it is crucial to question how citizens’ personal information can and will be used by governmental bodies, and how — or if — governmental bodies, elected politicians, and privacy policies will protect and defend citizens or corporations. 

While the world halts and aims to curtail this health crisis, I encourage people to remain cognizant and vigilant about subtle alterations to what we may deem as invasive. We should constantly be asking questions and analyzing our past and how it reflects on our present day situation. We need to consider if this all sets the stage for a new version of the Patriot Act. If we didn’t scale back after 9/11, can we expect to scale back after the coronavirus crisis? Does the new world order consist of private technology companies filling in the technological gaps of the government? Will our future consist of a society where technology companies ultimately dictate our laws as they build solutions and applications to fulfill what would have previously been defined as the duties of a democratic government? This may be one of the most important questions we must consider as we move through the current health crisis. 

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