Digital Contact Tracing Round-Table — Is Letting Companies Retrace Our Steps One Step Too Far?

Xavier Harding

By Xavier Harding | April 29, 2020 | Advocacy

Coronavirus caught the world off-guard. Each country is dealing with the highly-contagious virus in its own way, with varying levels of success. One method medical professionals employ to limit the spread of covid-19 is contact tracing, or finding out who a coronavirus patient has recently come in contact with. If they can tell those people to stay at home, it could limit the spread of the virus.

Tech companies are crafting their own ways of getting ahead of the virus. In the U.S., for example, Apple and Google are teaming up to create a way to contact trace digitally, using Bluetooth to determine who users come into contact with. In the E.U., eight mobile phone carriers are providing the European Commission with customers’ location data. Meanwhile, cities in China are assigning its residents a health score and tracking their movements while also using government cameras pointed at apartment doors to surveil those under quarantine. By some counts, at least 30 countries are ramping up tracking efforts to better flatten the curve.

Tracking smartphone users? What could possibly go wrong?

The analog version of contact tracing (simply telling your doctor who you’ve been nearby recently) has a proven track record. Its digital equivalent is polarizing. With no end date, this sort of tracking could be dangerous in the wrong hands. Though will we look back on the coronavirus pandemic and regret not making use of every tool at our disposal?

In a crowd of people, digital contact tracing would allow you to learn if you've passed by someone who's tested positive for coronavirus (Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash) In a crowd of people, digital contact tracing would allow you to learn if you've passed by someone who's tested positive for coronavirus (Photo by by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash)

The TL;DR

Mark Surman, Executive Director of Mozilla Foundation:
  • “We want to look in the future with this and see what norms we may be setting. My gut is to be really concerned, maybe setting the norm for the future that is much more invasive than what we are willing to accept now. What’s been really heartening is the number of governments and tech companies that have jumped forward with a lot of “privacy by design” thinking and a lot of good thinking on how this would be governed and all of those questions."
  • "There’s also a chance to potentially set some positive norms here as we look at the trade-offs and that to me is really exciting. We could be teeing ourselves up for an increased dystopian future, but we actually have an opening here to do some of the things we’ve all talked about for decades.”

Frederike Kaltheuner, Mozilla Fellow, former director at Privacy International:
  • “There are a number of conditions which need to be met for this to be useful in the first place. One of them is, in the absence of any kind of testing, there's no way for people to notify who they've been in touch with because they will never know if they have the virus or not. If there was testing, the next step you need to take is you need to quarantine yourself, but how can you do that, if you can’t afford to not go into work, for example? Then there’s no point.”
  • "The second: in the absence of manual contact tracing, we will always leave out people who don't have phones, whose phones don't have the technical capacity to do this kind of contact tracing, etc. Often, if you're privileged and comfortable, it's unlikely that you'll experience any harms. But harms are disproportionately going to be felt by certain kinds of people."

Marshall Erwin, Senior Director, Trust and Safety at Mozilla:
  • “We're all very familiar with the trade-offs of navigating our life online and feel like we're stuck with this choice of our privacy and our ability to live online, like we've been trapped by the major platforms. In the context of contact tracing, however, it almost feels like a much healthier choice.
  • "I feel like there's certain information that I might need to disclose in order to make my neighbors and my family healthier and that's a choice that I can make. I can understand the implications in a way that I think it’s a unique trade-off and it's a different way of thinking about privacy than we typically do on a day-to-day basis. Day-to-day, we feel trapped by these privacy choices in a way that feels inherently unhealthy rather than being able to make a pro-privacy choice or to disclose information that can help other people. In this context, it feels like a much healthier choice. That's not to say that there aren't real downsides here. But there's an explicit trade-off and I don't feel trapped by that choice."

Divij Joshi, Mozilla Fellow, Associate Director at SpicyIP:
  • "If I, for example, come into contact with 100 people and all those 100 people are infected, the government could make the decision to quarantine all of those individuals. In the absence of clinical testing, though, that would be a huge infringement on other rights that people have, not just privacy but mobility and freedom of contract and all of that. This is why I think we need to rope in epidemiologists into this. We need to loop public health authorities in and massively expand testing for this to be effective for anything. Otherwise we're relying on false assumptions and proxies for clinical data which can be really helpful."
  • "This can get very harmful when it serves as a distraction, where governments can claim that they're doing something — that you have managed to trace a billion people. When, actually, they've made faulty, or potentially discriminatory and exclusionary, assumptions about people and this disease, while not actually doing anything to solve the crisis."

Richard Whitt, Mozilla Fellow, President of GLIA Foundation:
  • “The conversation already reveals that we need the norms and the governance ahead of the technology. The challenge we have is that a month ago very few people even knew what contact tracing was. And so, even today, many people in the general population are struggling to understand what it means. And, as we already touched on, there are many flavors of it. And we haven’t even gotten to things beyond this gateway application, things like using GPS to monitor whether people are staying in quarantine.
  • In some ways this is the easiest conversation, or maybe the most privacy supportive approach, which is I think where Google and Apple are going and then other variations within contact tracing. Many other technologies down the road are coming at us pretty quickly and, as a society, we’re going to have to figure this out on a much faster pace than normally we would."

Check out the entire contact tracing round-table above. See the full transcript of the talk here.