Contact tracing apps: Public health tool or dystopian science fiction? It’s a fine line, UB expert says

Release Date: May 19, 2020

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Mark Bartholomew head shot.
“If I had told you three months ago that millions of U.S. citizens would install an app on their phones that records all of their movements as well as their interactions with others and then broadcasts their health status to those people and maybe the government too, you probably would have called it dystopian science fiction. ”
Mark Bartholomew, professor of law
University at Buffalo School of Law

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Across the world, contact tracing apps are being developed and deployed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Depending who you ask, these apps are a giant leap forward in the collection of critical public health information. Or, they’re an unprecedented incursion into our private lives.

The reality, according to University at Buffalo law professor Mark Bartholomew, is that both interpretations are accurate. Bartholomew, who studies how new technologies relate to the law, provides the following insight:

Privacy and surveillance issues

“The first concern is making sure the information collected will be used only in connection with limiting the spread of the virus. You can learn a lot about someone from their location data. As these apps roll out, there should be protections in place to make sure that any information collected is secure and will be deleted when the health crisis is over,” Bartholomew says.

“Another concern is the problem of normalization. If I had told you three months ago that millions of U.S. citizens would install an app on their phones that records all of their movements as well as their interactions with others and then broadcasts their health status to those people and maybe the government too, you probably would have called it dystopian science fiction. Now it is very real. Once we embrace this technology, we need to be careful not to let it seem so normal that it becomes part of the background like the other tools we have gotten used to that already surveil us online. There’s long been a tradeoff between privacy and security. In this particular instance with the pandemic, the security interests may outweigh the privacy ones, but that balance needs to be kept in mind as we determine exactly how these apps are to be designed and used,” Bartholomew says.

Can private companies force employees to use contact tracing apps?

“Yes, particularly if the private company can point to a business necessity for restricting employees that test positive for the virus. It might make a lot of sense for workers in health care or in a grocery store, but not so much for workers who can do their jobs remotely. The private employer would also need to be careful not to administer the app in a discriminatory fashion like, for example, only using contact tracing for employees over age 65,” Bartholomew says.

How have contact tracing apps worked so far?

“Governments outside of the United States have implemented different contact tracing apps, but it is too early to determine their effectiveness. For example, Singapore’s TraceTogether app uses Bluetooth technology to reveal who an infected person has come into contact with. Someone who tests positive for the virus can log into the app, which then notifies everyone they’ve recently come into contact with but without revealing the actual identity of the infected person. Scientists agree that the use of these apps needs to be widespread to be truly effective,” Bartholomew says.

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