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Former Washington Journalist
Contributor on The Bipartisan Press
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Public health professionals and government officials continue to tell Americans that the road back from the strict lockdown conditions and social distancing measures which have become a fact of life for most Americans in the fight to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, will rely on getting massive testing, tracking and contact-tracing programs up and running.
Indeed, tech giants Apple and Google have already begun work on a joint contact tracing effort that would use Bluetooth technology to help alert people who have been in close proximity to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
And Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US immunologist who is a member of the federal coronavirus task force, has even publicly suggested that Americans may have to eventually carry some sort of proof of immunity.
“You know, that’s possible,” Dr Fauci said in a recent TV interview. “It’s one of those things that we talk about when we want to make sure that we know who the vulnerable people are and not — this is something that’s being discussed. I think it might actually have some merit under certain circumstances.”
However, despite as well-meaning and even necessary as all of this new tracking and credentialing may be to defeat the ongoing pandemic, it also raises significant worry for advocates of civil liberties.
That’s led the American Civil Liberties Union to recommend a series of guidelines to protect Americans’ privacy and liberties.
“A well-designed tool would give people actionable medical information while also protecting privacy and giving users control, but a poorly designed one could pose unnecessary and significant risks to privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties,” said Jennifer Stisa Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the ACLU.
Those guidelines, said Stisa Granick, include: voluntariness, use limitations, minimalization, data destruction, transparency and “no mission creep.”
She applied those guidelines to the Apple/Google project.
“The Apple/Google proposal, for instance, offers a strong start when measured against these technology principles. Rather than track sensitive location histories, the Apple/Google protocol aims to use Bluetooth technology to record one phone’s proximity to another. Then, if a person tests positive, those logs can be used to notify people who were within Bluetooth range and refer them for testing, recommend self-isolation, or encourage treatment if any exists,” she said in her blog post. “Like the similar proposals, it relies on Bluetooth because the location data our cell phones generate is not accurate enough for contact tracing.”
However, the project could stand improvement in several areas, according to Stisa Granick.
“As of this writing, the Apple/Google protocol could better address certain important privacy-related questions, however. For example, how does the tool define an epidemiologically relevant “contact”? The public needs to know if it is a good technological approximation of what public health professionals believe is a concern. Otherwise, the tool could be collecting far more personal information than is warranted by the crisis or could cause too many false alarms,” And if there is indeed a plan to terminate the program at the conclusion of the pandemic, what criteria are the companies using to indicate when to press the built-in self-destruct button?
“Another issue is whether phone users control when to submit their proximity logs for publication to the exposure database. These decisions should be made by the phone user,” she added. “There may be good reasons why people do not want to upload all their data. User control can help to reduce false positives, for example if a user knows that identified contacts during that time were inaccurate (because they were in a car or wearing protective gear). It would also encourage people whose records include particularly sensitive contact information to at least volunteer the non-sensitive part of their records rather than fail to participate completely.”
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