U.S. public health officials have responded to past epidemics with contact tracing – following an infected person’s interactions with other people through a private and sensitive query. We now have digital methods that employ Bluetooth proximity data and GPS location to correlate an infected person’s movements and interactions.
This is powerful technology, with tremendous promise for human health, as well as a tremendous potential threat to Americans’ privacy.
The incoming Biden Administration plans to create a “nationwide pandemic dashboard” much like that used by South Korea to display transmission rates across the country. This could incorporate a national contact tracing effort, likely putting together the programs of participating states, with the use of a contact tracing app. If so, we hope that the public health experts will take a cue from Apple, Google and other private industries and work to ensure that a digital contact tracing app relies on consent, not secret surveillance, and has built-in measures to protect personal privacy.
The government should also observe three other principles:
PPSA accepts that a national emergency requires us all to give a little. But history shows that many “temporary” and “emergency” measures often become permanent and employed for other uses. We will remain vigilant against the possibility that contact tracing could lead to forms of government surveillance of political opponents worthy of George Orwell – or the People’s Republic of China.