Privacy in the Time of Pandemic: Contact Tracing

I’ve been reading about the various methods for contact tracing being used in an effort to manage Covid-19. Some Asian countries have been using technology to track where a person infected with Covid-19 has been. This data is then used to identify who else was in the area around the infected person within a certain time frame. People are instructed to quarantine and the government continues to track them to ensure they are compliant.

In the United States, humans are being trained to do contact tracing. Essentially this involves speaking with people recently diagnosed and getting a list of all the people they’ve interacted with in the preceding 48 hours. Then each person on the list is called and informed by the contact tracer that they may have been exposed to the virus, along with actions to take.

Recently, Google and Apple announced an alliance to create software that would enable governments to track (and hopefully prevent) the spread of Covid-19, “…with user privacy and security central to the design.” ( The idea is that people would be able to opt-in to the system. If infected, the person would have to disclose voluntarily. Then other users in the system would be alerted whenever they were close to or interacted with the infected person.

As someone who lives in an urban area, I’m wary of something like this without understanding how it would work in densely populated areas. How much contact would I have to have to receive an alert on my phone? Would I get one alert, or many? In urban areas, people would probably be getting alerts non-stop. Sounds stressful.

The real challenge is that measures like this often start out as voluntary and end up being compulsory. Usually in the rush to get these initiatives going, silly things like confidentiality and how this massive volume of highly sensitive and private information would be managed, gets overlooked. It seems with technology we’re always giving up our control for convenience, or in this case, public safety.

Even though everybody is eager to do what they can to stop the virus, it’s hard to predict how people could potentially be stigmatized for having had the illness. Or maybe those who haven’t yet had it. Either way, it makes a strong case to protect our sensitive health information before we start divulging it or trusting tech company giants with it, for any reason.

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