Contact tracing has become the term du jour in the Coronavirus era as it is largely seen as one of our best, time-tested tools to stop the virus from spreading and reopen the country safely. But it’s also controversial, especially with the rollout of digital contact tracking tools, some of which were created by greedy tech companies. Privacy advocates feared that the public health crisis could give rise to surveillance methods applied to other areas long after the pandemic has passed. Some stir those fears.
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety raised the alarm last weekend when Commissioner John Harrington said at a news conference that law enforcement was using “contact tracking” on arrested protesters.
John Harrington, Minnesota public safety commissioner, says they have reached out to locate detainees.
“Who are they associated with? On what platforms are they advocating? … Is this organized crime? … We are currently building that information network.” pic.twitter.com/U0KNIVHnf6
– NBC News (@NBCNews) May 30, 2020
“As we started making arrests, we started analyzing the data of who we arrested and started doing what we think is pretty much comparable to our Covid,” said Harrington. “It’s contact tracking.”
Not quite. According to Minnesota health authorities, Harrington referred to the normal process of law enforcement investigations. He did not mean that the police used data from Covid-19 contact detection efforts or tools to assist in those investigations, such as some to have interpreted his comments to mean.
“He used the term ‘contract tracking’ as a metaphor,” Julie Bartkey, a Minnesota Department of Health spokesperson, told Recode. “Just as we at MDH have used the term” disease researchers “to describe our epi[demiology] trials they used a term for public health. But no public health authorities are involved in their trial. ‘
A Harrington spokesperson agreed.
“He’s talking about typical criminal investigation, not a new technology or strategy,” Bruce Gordon, communications director at the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, told Recode. “He borrowed a term from the Covid-19 world.”
Contact tracking is the process of finding out who an infected person has recently had contact with and then informing those people that they have been exposed to the disease to prevent further spread of the disease. In the absence of a national effort to contain the virus, states have hired thousands of people to do this work. Ironically, Minnesota doesn’t seem to be one of them. The state has had problems expanding efforts to track contacts because of Republican concerns about costs. Some states and countries have also introduced digital contract tracking tools, although their effectiveness has not yet been proven.
But Harrington’s appropriation of a Covid-fighting term could make an audience that is already suspicious of law enforcement refuses to participate in public health efforts to find and help people exposed to the coronavirus, which would make those efforts less effective. Given that the mass congregations of protesters could become hotbeds for the spread of the virus, it is of particular concern that the people who would benefit most from contact tracing now have much more reason not to trust it.
And maybe they’re not wrong – at least, not entirely. Bartkey also said that the MDH has no policy or law specifically prohibiting law enforcement from accessing or using information collected by coronavirus tracers or tools.
“Covid is too new to legislate on it,” said Bartkey.
“We need new laws to ensure such data minimization not only for contact tracking, but for all Covid-19 responses that collect personal information,” Adam Schwartz, senior staff attorney for the EFF, wrote recently.
According to the Washington Post, a bill that would restrict digital tools for tracking contacts and the data they collect will be submitted to the Senate soon. It has bipartisan support, including from Maria Cantwell, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee. Mid-May introduced the Democrats of the House and Senate another bill that would also protect health data collected during a public health crisis. So the necessary legislation may come, but it is not there yet.
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