On the News

Stronger Data Privacy Laws Called Essential to Effective COVID-19 Contact Tracing

Passing a nationwide data privacy law could increase the effectiveness of contact tracing and help the United States deal with the coronavirus, health experts and technology regulators say.

A Senate Commerce Committee meeting this week titled “Revisiting the Need for Federal Data Privacy Legislation” examined whether stronger data privacy protections were needed during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in regulating the use of  new contract tracing technology —which monitors those who may have come in contact with infected individuals, CNET reports.

Case investigation and contact tracing are traditionally conducted by a public health worker, but as companies start to release contact tracing apps such as the University of Washington and Microsoft’s app “CovidSafe,” the issue of privacy comes into play.

“The need to collect a great deal of data for contact tracing and to track the spread of the disease raises privacy concerns if done improperly,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said at the hearing.

“The need for a uniform, national privacy law is greater than ever.”

While CovidSafe and other emerging contact tracing apps say they will protect consumers’ privacy, enforcement isn’t completely guaranteed unless Congress passes expanded data privacy protections, the health experts argued.

A “Consumer Data Privacy and  Security Act” was introduced in Congress last March, but it contained no specific provisions related to COVID.

Laws like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act protect patient health records, but only under the jurisdiction of health plans, health care clearinghouses or most health care providers. This means that technology such as CovidSafe, or others owned by Apple, Google, Microsoft or other technology corporations, are not legally bound to keep your information safe.

Passing federal legislation that ensures the privacy of consumers’ personal health information could ensure confidence and trust for technology aimed at making contact tracing quicker, easier and more accessible for people. Had privacy legislation passed sooner, there’s a possibility that the number of coronavirus cases would be lower, the CNET article reports.

Traditionally, after testing positive for coronavirus, a public health official or staff member would work with the infected individual to identify any person that they may have come in contact with while infected. Using a contact tracing app would access an individual’s GPS or location services to show exactly where they’ve been in the past two weeks, lessening the risk of human error in self-reporting your whereabouts.

Others who also have the app will be alerted if they’d been in close proximity to or visited the same place as someone who has tested positive, and will be advised to self-isolate and monitor their symptoms.

Read More: Australian Contact Tracing App Rings Privacy Alarms

This summary was prepared by TCR justice reporting intern Emily Riley.