ACLU questions effectiveness, legality of technology used to track COVID-19 carriers

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SAN DIEGO (Border Report) — New technology that uses Bluetooth and is meant to warn people about COVID-19 may provide results for which it’s not intended.

The technology is called “contact tracing” and it’s already being used in several countries like China and Italy, where the coronavirus spread at high rates.

It’s supposed to notify people who have been in close proximity to someone who has tested positive for the Coronavirus. The systems rely on “location detection” by mobile phones to deliver alerts about potential exposures.

The American Civil Liberties Union is worried about tracing efforts and sees many pitfalls associated with this warning system.

“While some of these systems may offer public health benefits, they may also cause significant
risks to privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties,” Daniel Kahn Gillmor, ACLU senior staff technologist, said in a report called Principles for Technology Assisted Control Training. “Their accuracy rate may prove low enough and the complexity of human interactions high enough that they generate too many false alarms, sending healthy people to medical facilities where they might become infected, or into quarantine for no good reason.”

The American Civil Liberties Union worries people using cell phones to receive COVID-19 warnings may be putting their privacy at risk.

Kahn went on to add the technology may not do much to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“It is useful only if those who learn of possible exposures to COVID-19 are able to
do something about it: get tested, get counseling, get treatment, or take measures like self-isolation. But it is useless if those services are unavailable or unaffordable. And advice that encourages self-isolation is implausible if the user of the TACT system or their family cannot afford to do so. The lack of adequate and equitable social and public health support systems would limit the effectiveness of any TACT system — potentially risking people’s privacy without
bringing them benefits.”

Another downfall, according to the ACLU, is that the success of these applications may hinge on participation.

“The United States has never compelled people to carry a phone, much less to install a specific app on their phone, and doing so would represent an enormous and consequential step,” wrote Kahn. “Some of these systems are decidedly privacy-unfriendly, leaking far more information about their users than is necessary to perform the public-health related function of stemming the epidemic. If these systems only endangered the fundamental rights of people who use them, that would be bad enough. But they also endanger their public-health mission, by causing people to mistrust and abandon them when they are needed.”

Apple and Google have announced they have designed a Coronavirus tracking system, but Kahn and the ACLU warn people should be skeptical, especially when lawmakers and corporations will make a big push to move our economy forward.

“There are risks to fundamental civil liberties posed by poorly designed systems and
a poorly designed system may be ineffective or even make the pandemic worse. We need a
sober consideration of the risks and trade-offs of such a system so that it protects not only the
fundamental right to health, but also our rights of privacy and free association.”

In a joint statement issued April 10, Apple and Google said, “Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders. We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyze.”

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