Technology-Assisted Contact-Tracing and Privacy

Ricardo Panaggio | March 19, 2021

For some time, many tech companies have been working on solutions to reduce the impact of the COVID-19 global crisis. Most of these proposed systems rely on location or proximity detection via mobile phones to selectively deliver alerts about potential exposures. Although some of these applications can provide public health benefits, they might be violating fundamental privacy principles, exposing users’ privacy, and even risking civil rights.

Contact tracing is one of the primary responses to the importation of rare infectious diseases. Technology-Assisted Contact-Tracing (TACT) evolved during the influenza pandemic of 2009, the Ebola virus epidemic of 2014, and monkeypox’s rare cases in 2018 [1]. While TACT efficiency is still in debate, the impact of its usage is something that must be discussed [2]. 

Unfortunately, TACT systems are also an opportunity for well-known and powerful corporations to expand their influence and control. They may try to do so through technology and data to address the pandemic [3].

In an attempt to address issues regarding the privacy of the implementation of TACT applications, many academics have published papers suggesting parameters to test how privacy-friendly a system of this nature should be. The following is a list the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security have identified for ensuring proper implementation of these applications [4].

The basic principles for evaluating TACT are:

  • Does not displace non-technical measures
  • It must be voluntary
  • It must be non-punitive
  • Created in collaboration with public health professionals
  • Privacy-preserving
  • Non-discriminatory
  • Minimal reliance on central authorities
  • Generalized data minimization 
  • No data leakage
  • Measurable impact
  • Needs to have an exit strategy
  • Narrowly-tailored to target a specific epidemic
  • Auditable and fixable
  • Sustainably maintained

 

Few technology-augmented contact-systems have made a noticeable contribution in the fight against diseases such as COVID-19. The above are aspects related to the software development process that must be taken into account. Factors such as the risk of violating fundamental civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy are very much in play. Our responsibility as technology professionals committed to the quality of the software process and the systems’ quality is to ensure the above principles’ implementation. Also, it is crucial to have local policies in place to guarantee the proper development of TACT systems. In this manner, we can help protect fundamental privacy and health rights in the future.  

 

References

  1. "World Health Organization," September 2015. [Online]. Available: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/185258/WHO_EVD_Guidance_Contact_15.1_eng.pdf;jsessionid=DBEC387633161CBA130DC3B3273258F1?sequence=1.
  2. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.02.14.20023036v1, "MedRxiv," 17 February 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.02.14.20023036v1.full.pdf. [Accessed 22 April 2020].
  3. C. Watson, A. Cicero, J. Blumenstock, and F. Michael, "Center For Health Organization," 7 April 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/our-work/pubs_archive/pubs-pdfs/2020/a-national-plan-to-enable-comprehensive-COVID-19-case-finding-and-contact-tracing-in-the-US.pdf. [Accessed 22 April 2020].
  4. K. G. Daniel , "ACLU," 16 April 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.aclu.org/report/aclu-white-paper-principles-technology-assisted-contact-tracing. [Accessed 22 April 2020].

 

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KEY TAKEAWAYS

  1. Technology-Assisted Contact-Tracing (TACT) has been one of the primary responses when facing the challenges of rare infectious diseases.
  2. Most of these proposed systems rely on location or proximity detection via mobile phones to selectively deliver alerts about potential exposures. 
  3. However, user privacy issues have emerged since well-known and powerful corporations can use TACT systems to expand their influence and control.

 

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