The Trouble with Contact Tracing Technology: Ethics, Accuracy, and Privacy Rights 

The race is on across the globe to create technology that would assist in tracing the spread of the novel coronavirus, using apps and location data from cellular devices.   

For many public health experts and civil liberty defenders, questions arise as to whether these technologies can accurately trace the virus, and whether they will burden civilian privacy rights while stigmatizing and leaving vulnerable populations at a disadvantage. Some warn that a misuse or overhaul of resources might detract from the ability to collect sound data and research using the age-old method of contact tracing among infected individuals. 

Here’s a look at how location data currently operates, how it could be used responsibly or irresponsibly towards tracing tech, and the ethical implications of accessing and broadcasting civilian location data.  

Location Data & Corruption  

Many states are already employing traditional contract tracing methods. Here in Benton County, the health department has increased contact tracing staff to help identify positive cases of COVID-19 and determine who has come in contact with these individualsin order to initiate the quarantining that slows the spread.  

In other states and countries, various contact tracing apps and technologies are being pursued, using location data to detect widespread exposure.  

An “exposure notification” effort is currently underway by U.S. tech giants Apple and Google for smartphone users worldwide, and is expected to debut as early as this month. Bluetooth technology will notify users when they’ve come in close proximity to others who’ve tested positive for COVID-19.  

Bluetooth is commonly used for tracking, and for short distance data exchange within a 30 foot radius. Users would have to consent to receiving notifications, and have their Bluetooth turned on in order to see them.  

In Singapore, the TraceTogether app uses Bluetooth “proximity tracking.” If a user tests positive for COVID-19, their phone will hold an encrypted message of who they’ve been in proximity to, which can then be unlocked by the country’s Ministry of Health.   

A “white paper” recently published by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which presents concerns and guiding principles for tech-based approaches to contact tracing pointed out “a number of problems” with Singapore’s TraceTogether app.  

“The Ministry of Health has access to user data about every app user, and detailed access to activity and contact logs and from every infected user,” the paper reads. “While they’ve promised to use this access only for public health purposes, there is nothing stopping them from turning over data to law enforcement or other punitive agencies.”  

The ACLU speaks broadly of corruption related to location data usage by companies in America. “Most location data with any level of precision is generated by an essentially corrupt ecosystem of shady, privacy-invading companies that engage in mass location tracking without individuals’ meaningful awareness or consent, typically by paying the developers of smartphone apps to hide tracking capabilities inside those apps.”   

The document continues, “This location data is scattered among dozens of such companies most Americans have never heard of. And giants like Google and Facebook that collect location data have enormous reach within the population, but only have location data on a minority of their users. Any kind of automated contact tracing that hopes to find close contacts will need to access more than a slice of existing data pools if the tracking is to effectively find otherwise unknown infected people.”  

The ACLU also expresses concern for how various populations and demographics might be represented in the data. “Making public health decisions on such datasets could leave out entire populations, and misrepresent others, and lead to a deployment of health care resources that is not only biased and unjust — tilted toward wealthy neighborhoods, for example — but ineffective from a public health standpoint.” 

Accuracy Issues  

Beyond Bluetooth, there are a number of ways data can be collected on the movement and location of individuals many of which present accuracy issues.  

For instance, GPS radio signals respond weakly indoors, near large buildings, in large cities, and in bad weather, according to the ACLU. “It can also take a GPS receiver up to several minutes to perceive its location when first turned on or brought outdoors.”  

In China, cell-site location data was discovered to generate too high a number of false positives and proved to be a waste of resources. China’s use of QR codes, however, could prove more useful. There, citizens are required to install a cellular app that scans matrix barcodes placed in taxis, buildings, buses, and subway stations.   

“These real-world checkpoints provide far more reliable and accurate tracking than wireless technologies — and can be combined with those technologies,” writes the ACLU. “The United States, however, has no such checkpoint infrastructure in place, little capacity or apparent desire to build one, and no legal authority to compel people to carry a phone, much less install a specific app on their phone.”  

According to the ACLU, none of the technologies so-far listed can reliably detect close contact defined by the Centers for Disease Control as coming within six feet of a person with COVID-19 for a prolonged period of time.  

In Israel, location data operates on automated proximity. The ACLU offers as example one woman identified as a contact “simply because she waved at her infected boyfriend from outside his apartment building.” The woman was ordered to quarantine based on this instance alone. 

“Using the wrong technology to draw conclusions about who may have become infected might lead to expensive mistakes,” says the ACLU, “such as two week isolation from work, friends, and family for someone — perhaps even a health care worker or first responder — who was actually not exposed.” 

Compliance and Policing  

Accuracy issues aside, any apps developed will depend on widespread user engagement in order to be successful.  

Oxford researchers claim that at least 60 percent of a population would need to participate in a contact tracing app in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Apps already employed in various states and countries are well-below this participation rate. For example, Australia’s COVIDSafe app has engaged less than 10 percent of their population.  

As for the U.S., one Washington Post-University of Maryland poll revealed that nearly 3 in 5 Americans would be either unable or unwilling to use the Google and Apple exposure notification app.  

Additionally, if policing efforts were employed to generate compliance, public health experts warn of negative outcomes. “That is because an enforcement approach often sparks counterproductive resistance and evasion and tends to sour the relationship between citizens and their government at a time when trust is of paramount importance,” writes the ACLU.  

Privacy and Ethics  

Concern for privacy and data was a main source of skepticism for those polled by the Washington Post-University of Maryland.  

In a press release, Google and Apple assured that user privacy and security would be central to their design. However, in other places where tech tracing has seen success, issues of privacy still persist.  

In South Korea, a government-operated text notification system alerts neighbors of infected individuals. This has done well to flatten the country’s curve, however authority figures are failing to fully anonymize the data. 

The ACLU examples the authorities’ description of a “43-year-old Nowon resident who was attending a sexual harassment class. Descriptions like these make it easy for individuals to be identified, increasing fear of stigmatization among the public, which could discourage individuals from getting tested.  

“Location data contains an enormously invasive and personal set of information about each of us, with the potential to reveal such things as people’s social, sexual, religious, and political associations,” writes the ACLU. “The potential for invasions of privacy, abuse, and stigmatization is enormous.”   

Proceed with Caution  

Health experts and civil liberty defenders agree that contact tracing technology should be pursued, albeit cautiously.  

“Ideally, nobody sees anything more than they need,” writes the ACLU. “For example, a public health official who needs to know how many people travel daily to her town from a nearby COVID-19 hotspot does not need access to her fellow residents’ personalized travel data to find that out. In many cases, the entity that already holds the location data can keep it and the government need not receive a copy. Any entity should be transparent and open about where the data came from, who holds it, and how it is being analyzed.”   

By Stevie Beisswanger