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Careful Consideration Needed: Privacy and Tech-assisted Contact Tracing

B.Next, IQT’s bio initiative focused on identifying and accelerating biotechnologies that could help detect, manage, and mitigate infectious disease epidemics, convened members of the technology, public health, and policy communities for a virtual roundtable that considered the potential and promise of tech-assisted contact tracing to help reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

Contact tracing, a well-established public health tool for disease containment, involves identifying and notifying people who come into contact with an infected person. Contact tracing is traditionally resource-intensive and laborious , where public health officials interview each infected person to identify their contacts since the infected person may have transmitted the infection, and contact each of those contacts to assess their risk, place them on quarantine, and monitor their health.

Technology may increase the scale and reach of contact tracing by automating the identification of contacts, reducing human error and recall bias, and optimizing teams of human contact tracers. Use of this technology may amplify privacy and security risks of citizens participating in contact tracing apps, such as the ones in operation in Israel and Singapore, and the ones in joint development by Apple and Google that use Bluetooth protocols .

The discussion centered on three critical concerns:

  1. Technology can augment the accepted and widespread practice of contract tracing conducted by the public health community. Yet, public health agencies are not or poorly equipped to evaluate or implement technology investments like the once needed to scale COVID-19 contact tracing.
  2. Citizens’ privacy is a real need and concern. Several privacy-preserving technologies exist and may be used to secure any user data collected by the contact tracing apps, and thus by the app’s operator and sponsor. Participants considered the premise that that American society will embrace contact tracing apps only if the apps are built on six core principles of trust and privacy:
    – the apps will be temporary;
    – the apps will contain appropriate security safeguards;
    – the apps will require meaningful consent and opt-in;
    – the apps will limit their use of data to the current pandemic only;
    – the apps will retain data for an appropriate retention period; and
    – the apps will be audited by an independent authority.

3. Governance and oversight. Building on the privacy discussion, the roundtable considered the governance implications of contact tracing and whether common governance frameworks for tech-assisted contact tracing apps can work within a federal system of government in which state and local authorities may have their own apps.

What’s clear from this discussion is that technology-amplified (augmented) contact tracing can help in the core tenet of infectious disease management, which is to identify the sick. The implementation of apps and other technologies to assist contact tracing holds promise but much more discussion and consideration is needed to outlined optimal methods and governance for ensuring users privacy. Watch this space and the B.Next twitter (@_b_next) feed to join us in this ongoing discussion.

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