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Massachusetts Weighs Contact Tracing Tools, Personal Privacy

Gov. Charlie Baker hasn’t ruled out using smartphone technology for contact tracing, but he said its implementation would need to be done in a way that makes people comfortable. The ACLU supports voluntary tracking apps.

by Steph Solis, MassLive.com / May 1, 2020
Shutterstock/GCapture

(TNS) — Public health experts warn that quick, effective contact tracing is key to reducing the spread of the coronavirus. It turns out there’s an app for that — several apps, actually.

Massachusetts isn’t implementing mobile contact tracing because of privacy concerns, but the governor hasn’t dismissed the idea altogether.

Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday that the state has looked into electronic contact tracing programs, but he is concerned about what data could be collected from residents across the state.

He also said a contact tracing app could deter people from participating. Smartphone apps these days are typically associated with the undetected, often clandestine, collection of user data for surveillance and commercial purposes.

The state contact tracers’ ability to connect with coronavirus patients and other individuals is because they’ve fostered trust, which Baker said is crucial to the program’s success.

“If you talk to some of the folks who are making these calls and talking to people on the other side, it’s not a clinical conversation per se. It is a trust conversation,” Baker told MassLive Tuesday afternoon during a news conference at the Massachusetts State House. “People ask questions. People are looking for information. It’s a much more free-flowing and open dialogue than I think a lot of the people who are doing this were expecting.”

The Baker administration has looked into using smartphone technology to bolster the state’s COVID-19 response.

Baker’s office reportedly reviewed a paper by a coalition of scientists and tech executives recommending strategies recovering from the coronavirus pandemic. One of the key recommendations was mass, voluntary use of an app in which people would self-report any symptoms they may have before going to work or school after the state reopens.

Baker said Thursday that he spoke with Google and Apple about their contact tracing efforts. The technology giants are working on a joint initiative to expand contact tracing using Bluetooth signals.

Meanwhile, MIT researchers are developing their own app called Private Kit, but the team has not publicly disclosed which states and municipalities are on board.

“What I said about this from the beginning is that I don’t see this as an either-or. I think it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t subtract from the importance of sort of the credibility of our tracing program,” Baker said. “I think it’s certainly something we should try to figure out how use it but to make it better.”

The state’s contact tracing program has recruited 1,000 workers to make calls to people who tested positive for or were exposed to the coronavirus. The team has also gotten help from 80 local boards of health and the nonprofit coordinating the program, Partners in Health. Since its launch earlier this month, the program has reached 5,000 people.

With its current team, Massachusetts’ program has roughly 15 contact tracers per 100,000 people, compared to 4 contact tracers per 100,000 people in New Zealand and 7 per 100,000 in Iceland, according to an April 10 report by the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University. But those countries are smaller and also had lower numbers of coronavirus cases.

Technology might be necessary to speed up COVID-19 tracking because it spreads much more quickly and undetected than other viruses that have been monitored through contact tracing, such as Ebola or HIV, according to the report. Yet researchers cautioned against a program that implements technology without responsibly managing data and protecting users’ privacy.

“To increase the chances that these efforts will be effective, trusted and legal, use of technology in the contact tracing space should be conceived of and planned with extensive safeguards to protect private information from the beginning,” the report states.

South Korea, whose contact tracing plan is seen as a model, used patient data in addition to interviews. They reviewed medical records, cellular GPS records, credit card transactions and other information that would be considered too invasive in the U.S.

Sinagpore launched a mobile app that uses Bluetooth signals to determine when users are close to each other. The records are stored for 21 days and can be used by health officials to identify those who may have been exposed to a virus. Although downloading the app is voluntary, critics argue it promotes government surveillance.

white paper published April 16 by the American Civil Liberties Union raises concerns about the personal information that could be collected, or even unintentionally exposed, by people who voluntarily download an app. If launched effectively, however, the ACLU argues an app that uses Bluetooth signals would work better than a location-tracking system. The technology would be more accurate, leading to fewer false positives, and could avoid compiling geolocation data that “can be incredibly revealing and privacy-invasive.”

Austria, Denmark and Germany are all looking into contact tracing apps that monitor Bluetooth signals, though the apps would be used on a voluntary basis.

Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said it’s too early for the state to successfully implement a contact tracing app. Even if it found one that respects user privacy, as Baker suggested, the state would need to improve its testing capacity before expanding the contact tracing program using a mobile app.

“Even if someone gets a text saying they’ve been exposed, they can’t even get a test,” Crockford said. “Public health officials told us state is doing the right thing by and large.”

Crockford said the state’s best strategy at the moment is to continue the measures the Baker administration already put in place: social distancing rules, the stay-at-home advisory and interview-based contact tracing.

If the state did pursue a contact tracing app, privacy advocates and public health experts recommend taking steps to limit data collection and safe, brief data storage.

The ACLU recommends rolling out a smartphone app that is voluntary, temporary and secure, as well as an app that limits how much data it collects.

A voluntary app means no penalties for failing to download the app, the ACLU argues. That includes not making a resident’s ability to go to work or shop for food contingent on whether the app is installed and running.

An ideal contact tracing app would not only avoid collecting data that isn’t necessary for the COVID-19 response, but also would have firewalls in place to protect the data that is compiled and shared to state health officials, according to the ACLU. Some suggestions include keeping data encrypted, separating key data from identifying markers such as phone numbers and IP addresses, submit key data in large batches and destroy the data periodically.

Massachusetts has hit what Baker describes as a plateau in coronavirus cases. The number of hospitalizations are down, but the state hasn’t seen a steep decline in new cases. The latter is key for the state to reopen and start to move past the outbreak.

On Thursday, Massachusetts health officials announced 157 new fatalities, bringing the death toll to 3,562. Altogether, 62,205 people have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the state Department of Massachusetts.

Baker hasn’t ruled out using smartphone technology for contact tracing, but he said its implementation would need to be done in a way that makes people comfortable.

“There are some confidentiality and privacy issues associated with this,” he said, “but that’s an ongoing discussion we’re having with the folks that are involved.”

©2020 MassLive.com, Springfield, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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