‘Conflicting Interests’

Bill Aims To Protect COVID-19 Contact Tracing Privacy Rights

In this May 11 photo, Salt Lake County Health Department public health nurse Lee Cherie Booth points to a board showing a hypothetical case that serves as a training tool to teach new contact tracers how to track all the people they need to reach out to after a person tests positive for COVID-19. Some cases involve just a few family members, while others require health investigators to alert dozens of people who might have been exposed. AP photos

A New York City Democrat is pushing state legislation to protect privacy rights during COVID-19 contact tracing procedures.

Assemblyman Ron Kim, D-Flushing, recently introduced A.10462 in the Assembly to establish protocols for COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and immunity certification, protect individuals’ right to privacy, grant people the right to control their identification data and to require biometric data be kept anonymous for protection from law enforcement. Kim’s legislation is co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon, D-Yonkers, and Assemblywoman Mathyl de Frontus, D-Brooklyn.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the sheer infrastructural inadequacies in the state and nation’s health care system; in particular, it has exposed our society’s dependence on Big Tech to provide services such as contact tracing that are crucial towards returning to some semblance of functioning society,” Kim wrote in his legislative justification.

As governments around the world consider how to monitor new coronavirus outbreaks while reopening their societies, many are starting to bet on smartphone apps to help stanch the pandemic. But their decisions on which technologies to use — and how far those allow authorities to peer into private lives — are highlighting some uncomfortable trade-offs between protecting privacy and public health.

“There are conflicting interests,” said Tina White, a Stanford University researcher who first introduced a privacy-protecting approach in February, told the Associated Press. “Governments and public health (agencies) want to be able to track people” to minimize the spread of COVID-19, but people are less likely to download a voluntary app if it is intrusive, she said.

A smartphone belonging to Drew Grande, 40, of Cranston, R.I., shows notes he made for contact tracing April 15. Grande began keeping a log on his phone at the beginning of April, after he heard Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo urge residents to start out of concern about the spread of the coronavirus.

Smartphone apps could speed up that process by collecting data about your movements and alerting you if you’ve spent time near a confirmed coronavirus carrier. The more detailed that data, the more it could help regional governments identify and contain emerging disease “hot spots.” But data collected by governments can also be abused by governments — or their private-sector partners.

Some countries and local governments are issuing voluntary government-designed apps that make information directly available to public health authorities.

In Australia, more than 3 million people have downloaded COVIDSafe, an app touted by the prime minister, who compared it to the ease of applying sunscreen and said more app downloads would bring about a “more liberated economy and society.” Utah is the first U.S. state to embrace a similar approach with an app called Healthy Together, developed by a social media startup previously focused on helping young people hang out with nearby friends.

Both these apps record a digital trail of the strangers an individual encountered. Utah’s goes even further, using a device’s location to help track which restaurants or stores a user has visited.

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.

Kim wants to head off such concerns in New York state with his bill, titled the “Test, Trust And Certify Act.” It amends Section 50 of the state Civil Rights Law to expand the types of data protected under statutory rights to privacy, in particular biometric data, which would include data COVID-19 testing for antibodies. The proposal directs the state Health Commissioner and state Attorney General to make sure personal information is used for contact tracing and certification while protecting data privacy from law enforcement and third-party entities like technology companies to remain in compliance with the Fourth Amendment’s protection from unwarranted search and seizure.

The right of privacy Kim seeks to create could result in misdemeanor charges against those who sell or give away personal information without a person’s written consent.

The state Public Health Law would be amended to outline procedures for decentralized and self-sovereign contact tracing and immunity certification protocols. The state Health Commissioner and local officials would be directed to create guidelines for contact tracing and immunity certification, forbid charging testing fees and discrimination against those protecting their identity and data. A self-sovereign identification protocol would be created to make sure a person’s immigration, banking status, financial record or police record can’t be collected and that the use of any centralized, private, third-party platform for data storage is prohibited. Self-sovereign as Kim defines it would give individuals the right to maintain sovereign access and control of their data without being required to disclose unneeded private data, and protect their data from extraction for profit or use other than the explicit intent of COVID-19 contact tracing. Biometric data as defined by Kim’s legislation would include physiological, biological or behavioral characteristics or an electronic representation of those traits. Biometric data can also include eye scans, fingerprints, face, hand, palm or vein patterns, body temperature, data collected from nasal or throat swabs, blood serum, plasma or blood withdrawals for antibody testing, convalescent plasma or otherwise asymptomatic patients of pathogenic and infectious disease, and voice recordings.

“Even now, tech monopolists such as Apple and Google seek to capitalize on the contact tracing industry and profit off of the extraction of individuals’ personal biometric data. Moreover, should private employers mandate their employees to subject themselves to third-party, extractive testing and contact tracing measures, it would further jeopardize the privacy rights of New Yorkers while further enriching tech capitalists,” Kim wrote in his legislative justification. “The ramifications of this are severe, and will lead to a society further divided by class and racial strife if left unabated. This legislation will endow individuals with their sovereign rights to access and control of their data, while providing protocols for a decentralized, peer-to-peer system for contact tracing and immunity certification. It has been said that pandemics end in two ways, medically and socially: the scope of this bill is to facilitate the social ending of the COVID-19 pandemic and allowing society to trust one another once more.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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