By Pam Greenberg
If you had been exposed to someone with COVID-19, would you want to know? If you came down with the virus, would you want to be able to let others know if they had been near you, especially if you could remain anonymous?
In some states, if you own an iPhone or Android device, you may be able to decide this for yourself.
If enough people choose to use this type of tracking, it could help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to an Oxford University study. Even if a relatively small number of people download an app, the researchers say, it could have a protective effect.
Many Americans so far, however, say they are not inclined to download the apps, despite the privacy-protective features that are built into them. Some may be wary after learning of the kind of surveillance done by other countries, such as India, which has made its coronavirus tracking app mandatory. Also, 60% of Americans feel that even if the government tracked people’s locations through their cellphone, it wouldn’t make much of a difference in limiting the spread of COVID-19, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
But some state health departments are moving forward with contact tracing apps (also called exposure notification apps). The Virginia Department of Health in August released the first state smartphone app in the U.S. based on the Exposure Notifications System developed jointly by Google and Apple. Maryland, Nevada and the District of Columbia are also using the Google Apple tool. Maryland and the District of Columbia are expected to release apps in October. North Dakota and Utah are also among the states that released apps early on, and others are in the process of developing them.
It’s clear that these state government apps are entirely voluntary, and they are designed to ensure anonymity. For example, Apple and Google’s system provides application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology as the basis for a state to build an app.
The companies provide the tools only to public health authorities and require that the apps obtain users’ opt-in consent before installing. Once downloaded, the exposure notification system will generate a random ID for a device so it can’t be used to identify individuals or their location. The companies have encryption and security measures in place and they also have pledged to terminate the technology when the pandemic ends.
State lawmakers are taking a role in the use and oversight of state apps. For example, Pennsylvania’s Senate Communications and Technology Committee recently held an oversight hearing to learn about the tracing app being rolled out by the state’s Department of Health. Several states have considered bills related to privacy and smartphone contact tracing apps. Bills have also been introduced in Congress.
Contact tracing has been around for decades and apps are only one part of the fight against covid-19. Improving public health is one measure of the success of the apps; improving public trust by protecting privacy will be another.
Don’t Miss NCSL’s Privacy Week, Sept. 21-25. NCSL Privacy Week is for legislators and legislative staff interested in consumer data policy, the use of government data and the intersections between data privacy and cybersecurity.
Pam Greenberg tracks privacy and technology issues for NCSL.