Virus Outbreak Phone Surveillance

This April 28, 2020, photo shows a smartphone app built for the state of Utah displaying coronavirus test sites. The app tracks symptoms and shares location data for contact tracing, the process of determining who might have been exposed to the virus. The app is “a tool to help jog the memory of the person who is positive so we can more readily identify where they’ve been, who they’ve been in contact with, if they choose to allow that,” said Angela Dunn, Utah’s state epidemiologist.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Harnessing today’s technology to the task of fighting the coronavirus pandemic is turning out to be more complicated than it first appeared.

The first U.S. states that rolled out smartphone apps for tracing the contacts of COVID-19 patients are dealing with technical glitches and a general lack of interest by their residents. A second wave of tech-assisted pandemic surveillance tools is on its way, this time with the imprimatur of tech giants Apple and Google. But those face their own issues, among them potential accuracy problems and the fact that they won’t share any information with governments that could help track the spread of the illness.

Contact tracing is a pillar of infection control. It’s traditionally conducted by trained public health workers who interview those who may have been exposed, then urge them to get tested and isolate themselves. Some estimates call for as many as 300,000 U.S. workers to do the work effectively, but so far those efforts have lagged.

Other tech companies like Salesforce have offered database tools to assist manual tracing efforts, although those also raise privacy concerns because of the need to collect and store detailed information about people’s social connections, health status and whereabouts.

Privacy advocates warn that the danger of creating new government surveillance powers for the pandemic could lead to much bigger problems in the future. In a new policy paper shared with The Associated Press, the American Civil Liberties Union is warning state governments to tread more carefully and establish stricter privacy procedures before deploying technology meant to detect and curb new coronavirus outbreaks.

Even the most privacy-minded tools, such as those to be released soon by Apple and Google, require constraints so that they don’t become instruments of surveillance or oppression. “The risks of getting it wrong are enormous,” said Neema Singh Guliani, a senior legislative counsel with the ACLU.

ACLU’s report says the worst location-tracking technology should be rejected outright, such as apps that track individual movements via satellite-based GPS technology and feed sensitive personal data into centralized government databases. “Good designs don’t require you to gather people’s location information and store that,” Singh Guliani said.

She urged governments to set rules addressing both privacy and efficacy so that surveillance tools don’t interfere with more conventional public health methods.

Utah, North Dakota and South Dakota were the first U.S. states to launch voluntary phone apps that enable public health departments to track the location and connections of people who test positive for the coronavirus. But governors haven’t had much luck getting the widespread participation needed for them to work effectively.

The state with the highest known rate of participation so far is South Dakota, where last week about 2% of residents had the Care19 app on their phones. Last week was also the first time it recorded a single infection. The same app is getting even less support in North Dakota.

Among the governments experimenting with the Apple-Google approach are the state of Washington and several European countries.