The push to implement widespread contact tracing, which involves tracking infected people and those they have come in contact with, comes after months of now-easing lockdowns. Contact tracing is “part of the process of supporting patients and warning contacts of exposure in order to stop chains of transmission” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It also comes amid concerns of a second wave of the disease. COVID-19 has reportedly claimed more than 100,000 lives in the United States, amid more than 2 million infections. To prevent new outbreaks, some jurisdictions are requiring customers at businesses such as restaurants and beauty salons to sign in so they can be contacted if there is evidence an infected person patronized the establishment. Some retail stores are requiring appointments merely to look at merchandise.
In New York, the state hit hardest by the virus, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, is now talking about locking the state down again because people aren’t practicing social distancing. As reports emerged of New York City residents squeezing tightly into bars and not wearing masks, Cuomo responded on Twitter on June 13, “Don’t make me come down there …”
Wildly exaggerated COVID-19 death predictions helped to foster public distrust of governments’ handling of the pandemic. For a month after influential Imperial College London epidemiologist Neil Ferguson warned that a staggering 2.2 million Americans would likely die of the disease, federal officials promoted the findings of that now-discredited March 16 study.
Those terrifying figures helped convince Americans to stay at home and not go about their normal everyday lives, going without paying work if they were unable to work remotely. This in turn led to a sudden, massive spike in unemployment and economic reversals that have fed civil unrest.
And declarations from government officials such as Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams who at first told people not to wear face masks, then said everyone should wear face masks, have eroded confidence in official guidance on virus containment.
“The public health community has forfeited a huge amount of trust over the last few months, and that’s going to make people much less likely to be cooperative,” Glenn Reynolds, Beauchamp Brogan distinguished professor of law at the University of Tennessee College of Law, told The Epoch Times.
Conservative activist Kat Stansell of the nonprofit group United in Strength for America, thinks government tracking of infected persons is fraught with danger.
“Contact tracing is as invasive of our freedoms as anything could possibly be. It literally sends chills down my spine. … It is a glaring attack on the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution: the right to privacy and security against unreasonable searches and seizures,” she told The Epoch Times.
Robert Weissberg, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois–Urbana, holds a different view. He suggested that Americans are understandably preoccupied with other problems in society.
“Personal privacy is far, far down the list of what worries people in current times,” he told The Epoch Times.
Although epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan, a professor at the University of Ottawa, said contact tracing, which is time-consuming and labor-intensive, is absolutely essential as part of a proper public health regime, he acknowledged there are some valid privacy concerns.
“With new tracing technologies, like the tracking apps, then there is by definition some intrusion into our lives because the data is objective and passive,” he told The Epoch Times.
Critics say data captured the old way, by individuals using the telephone to contact persons of interest, spending perhaps 90 minutes on each case, can be misused, the same as data captured by smartphone apps, many of which are now in development for use in the United States.
Some international versions of contact-tracing technology “expand mass surveillance, limit individual freedoms and expose the most private details about individuals,” according to Apps Gone Rogue: Maintaining Personal Privacy in an Epidemic, a report published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in March.
“Risks exist for both the individual and the public with use of contact-tracing technology,” the report states.
“The primary challenge for these technologies, as evident from their deployment in the COVID-19 crisis, remains securing the privacy of individuals, diagnosed carriers of a pathogen, and local businesses visited by diagnosed carriers, while still informing users of potential contacts. Additionally, contact-tracing technologies offer opportunities for bad actors to create fear, spread panic, perpetrate fraud, spread misinformation, or establish a surveillance state.”
Those diagnosed with the virus “are at the greatest risk of their privacy being violated … by public identification.”
“Even when personal information is not published, these individuals may be identified by the limited set of location data points released. When identified publicly, diagnosed carriers often face harsh social stigma and persecution.”
An example from South Korea stands out, the report states.
Information sent out by that country’s government “to inform residents about the movements of those recently diagnosed with COVID-19, sparked speculations about individuals’ personal lives, from rumors of plastic surgery to infidelity and prostitution.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has expressed privacy concerns, as well.
“We don’t yet know if any of these technologies will work, but we do know that we currently lack many of the protections needed to guard against abuse or overreach,” ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Neema Singh Guliani said in a statement.
“If we as a country decide to go down the path of tech-assisted contact tracing, our lawmakers must first enact robust safeguards to prevent these tools from exacerbating existing disparities and violating our civil rights and liberties.”
Governments should also require that “any data obtained from these tools be used only by public health agencies and for public health purposes related to the pandemic, and be destroyed after its use expires.”
The ACLU urges that governments make sure that any use of contact tracing technology is voluntary and prohibit “private and public entities from making the use of a contact tracing technology a condition of employment, housing, or access to critical services like grocery stores.”
The liberal Brookings Institution concurs.
A report from April warns that there’s “a very real danger that these voluntary surveillance technologies will effectively become compulsory for any public and social engagement.”
“Employers, retailers, or even policymakers can require that consumers display the results of their app before they are permitted to enter a grocery store, return back to work, or use public services—as is slowly becoming the norm in China, Hong Kong, and even being explored for visitors to Hawaii.”
Klon Kitchen, director of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Center for Technology Policy, also urged caution in the deployment of tracing apps.
“Technology will play a critical role in getting the country up and running again,” Kitchen said. “But as we leverage these tools, we must always protect the fundamentals of our shared experiment in liberty.”