Contact Tracing Raises Opportunities and Concerns

This week’s security newsletter follows the growing importance of contact tracing as it expands both manually and digitally. The tech field loves the app, but does the public?

Digital contact tracing is already underway in Australia. Now the U.S. is about to find out if it works domestically. (Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
Welcome to the latest issue of the Future of Security newsletter. Let’s get started:

Contact tracing is getting a lot of attention, and raising concerns about surveillance and privacy.

By last week, more than 2,000 public health workers in the country were performing contact tracing — the job of locating people who have been in close contact with an infected patient and making sure they quarantined for two weeks to stop the spread. The task is considered crucial to allowing businesses to reopen and returning the country to a more normal life as the pandemic recedes, say experts.

But the operation is occurring without any national plan, leaving the states to fund and manage what is considered to become a massive undertaking that will last at least 18 months and involve tens of thousands of volunteers and workers. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials estimate that at least 100,000 additional trained workers and more than $3.6 billion will be needed to safely manage the spread of the virus once businesses start reopening.

The ranks of states that conduct contact tracing continue to grow, with California, Michigan, Massachusetts and New York taking the lead. But the existing approach is labor-intensive, so it has attracted attention from the tech industry to come up with a digital solution to the problem.

In early April, GT’s cybersecurity reporter Lucas Ropek reported how Kansas was taking advantage of a recently launched platform that uses cellphone data to track the whereabouts of state residents in the hopes of further containing the coronavirus.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) operates a "Social Distancing" dashboard
that uses phone GPS data to illustrate the spread of the virus.

“The data, which is anonymized and aggregated, can show at a county level whether residents are basically abiding by local stay-at-home orders or not. The data, which updates on a daily basis, is synthesized from a number of different sources, including public data and data that the company has previously purchased from other vendors,” said a company representative.

The trend towards digital contact tracing apps grows. Many companies are already working on apps that will link to the Bluetooth-based software Apple and Google are releasing and which is designed to provide some measure of privacy to the users. That software will power apps built by state and local public health agencies, according to Washington Post reporter Joseph Marks. 

“It's designed to log any time two people who have consented to be tracked are in proximity using anonymous signals that don't identify the individuals themselves. If someone reports being diagnosed with the coronavirus, the app will alert everyone he or she was in contact with they should consider getting tested or self-quarantining,” reported Marks, adding that an app that plans to incorporate the Bluetooth technology is already available
in North Dakota and another is in the works in Utah. 

But Americans are not showing a lot of enthusiasm for the tracking apps. About half with smartphones say they’re probably or definitely unwilling to download apps being developed by Google and Apple to alert those nearby that they came into contact with someone who is infected, a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll has found, according to the Washington Post

Tod is the managing editor of Governing and the contributing editor of our sister publication, Government Technology. He was previously the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.