What is Contact Tracing?

Over the past few weeks the news has been full of reports about contact tracing, a medical technique intended to limit the spread of COVID-19. This new technique, coupled with new technology, promises to stop the outbreak and maybe even get us out of lockdown sooner. Despite all of its benefits, contact tracing also opens the door for authoritarian tracking straight out of Orwell. What exactly is contact tracing, and is it a good idea?

Contrary to popular belief, contract tracing is not reliant on modern technology. The term “contact tracing” simply refers to when doctors work backward to anticipate who may have been infected by a COVID-19 patient. When someone is diagnosed with COVID-19, they are interviewed by doctors who seek to build a comprehensive list of everyone that person had contact with in the time that they could have infected others. Those people are then alerted and sometimes placed under quarantine to prevent them from infecting others, halting the exponential growth process. Of course it would be impossible to track down the interpersonal relationships of every COVID patient, so the technique is usually only employed when a case has appeared in an area where there have been no prior cases before or where doctors are particularly worried about an outbreak occurring.

The contract tracing practiced by doctors conducting interviews with patients has few risks for personal privacy rights since it is voluntary, but it is also not very effective. As tech blog The Verge points out, if a COVID patient stood next to someone else on a crowded subway, they would not know that person’s name or be able to provide it in a contact tracing interview, but that person would still be at risk. Fully tracing every human contact of each individual across the world today is a superhuman undertaking, but it is possible with the help of technology.

While smartphones are not universal in today’s world, there are still 3.5 billion cell phones on the planet, meaning that nearly 45% of all people alive have smartphones. Those numbers are even higher in urban areas where disease is more likely to spread. Most phones are equipped with Bluetooth devices that exchange signals based on proximity. A new joint proposal from Apple and Google proposes installing an optional tracking app on all phones. Considering their collective control over the industry, they could probably accomplish this quite easily.

The digital contract tracing plan makes the superhuman possible. When a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, they could simply notify the app and every phone that came within six feet of them in the preceding two weeks would be alerted. Such a project could significantly help to ease the coronavirus pandemic by stopping outbreaks before they even start, but such minute tracking also poses a serious threat to personal freedom. The American Civil Liberties Union wrote that “As always, there is a danger that simplistic understandings of how technology works will lead to investments that do little good, or are actually counterproductive, and that invade privacy without producing commensurate benefits.”

Meanwhile, a group of senators in Congress have put forward a plan to roll out contact tracing while protecting citizens’ rights. However, the plan does not give enforcers any real powers to maintain the legislation and, worse, prevents state governments from putting stricter regulations in place. This means that individual states would be unable to override the law with stricter rules should problems arise, essentially setting regulations in stone before we even understand the full implications of the technology.

Concerns about contact tracing apps are not limited to issues of freedom. In a recently published scientific paper titled “Ethical Guidelines for SARS-CoV-2 Digital Tracking and Tracing Systems” a team of Oxfordian scholars pointed out that, “[contact tracing] may exacerbate problems like social panic, social shaming, the erosion of trust in the government and public health services, or inequality.”

Now more than ever it is vital that people feel comfortable trusting governments and public health officials when they distribute information and advice about the pandemic. If people start to panic over the Orwellian potential of contact tracing they may stop trusting doctors who encourage it about anything, worsening the outbreak. Perhaps even worse, the idea of contact tracing could introduce what the paper calls “social shaming”, shifting the commonly heard message of “we’re all in this together” to an increasing fear and distrust of the unknown and of other people. A panic like that would certainly worsen the pandemic.

One thing that almost everyone agrees on right now is that these apps would always be optional, although that might change if the pandemic worsens. Not all is doom and gloom. The Apple and Google plan states that the “keys”, or identity numbers, that the phones exchange will change every 15 minutes and the full list of contacts would only be stored within each phone. That means that there will be no central server of contact tracing records. Theoretically, this would prevent an Orwellian scenario where authoritarian governments could use contact tracing records to track citizens’ movements.

Contact tracing apps are not just theoretical. According to a scientific paper titled “Ethical Guidelines for SARS-CoV-2 Digital Tracking and Tracing Systems”, as of April 20th there were as many as 43 contract tracing apps available to the public worldwide. In England, a contact tracing app produced by the British government went live on the Isle of Wight today, May 7th, to mixed public opinion. Unlike the Apple/Google plan, the UK app follows a so-called “centralized” approach that would allow doctors to access a central server of location records.

The British government has assured users that the app will not collect data without permission. According to their plan, the app will collect very little data in the beginning and will start gathering more information over time, providing an agreement prompt with each new update. However, this has raised objections, too. As law professor Orla Lynskey points out, “There is an inherent risk that if you create a system that can be added to incrementally, you could do so in a way that is very privacy invasive…” Continuing to click agree on seemingly innocuous permission alerts could lull users into a false sense of security until they have signed away all their rights.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote that, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” While that quote may have originally been intended to be a commentary on taxation for defense spending, it is surprisingly apt for issues of privacy. Mass mobilization of contact tracing might be a sacrifice of liberty, but it could also save lives. Is it worth it? That’s up to you to decide.



Former Editor in Chief of The City Voice, finally graduated City High Middle School as part of the Class of 2022.