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Cellphone contact tracing draws skepticism as a solution for slowing COVID-19

Cellphone contact tracing draws skepticism as a solution for slowing COVID-19
[Photo: Steve Halama/Unsplash]

Most Americans don’t think tracking cellphone locations would make much difference in slowing the spread of the coronavirus, according to a new survey report from Pew Research Center.

According to the report, released Thursday and based on a survey conducted April 7 through 12, 60% of Americans don’t think such tracking would make a difference. Additionally, only 52% of Americans say it’s “at least somewhat acceptable” to use the data for that purpose, according to the report. Democrats are generally more likely than Republicans to find the tracking acceptable, with independents in the middle, according to the report.

A variety of proposals, including one from Apple and Google for iOS and Android phones, has suggested using cellphone data to help determine who has been in contact with somebody who has the virus. The Apple and Google proposal would use Bluetooth technology to spot when phone users had been near each other, so contacts could be notified, without logging where people actually were.

The American Civil Liberties Union released a report of its own Thursday, calling for guidelines on tracking apps, including that they be voluntarily deployed, not used to implement punitive measures, designed with privacy in mind, and specifically targeted to COVID-19 rather than used for other purposes as well.

“In the coming weeks and months, we will see a real push to reopen the economy, a push that will rely heavily on public health measures that include contact tracing,” said Daniel Kahn Gillmor, ACLU senior staff technologist, in a statement. “While some technology-assisted contact-tracing systems may offer public health benefits, they may also cause significant risks to privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties. We need a sober consideration of the risks and tradeoffs of such a system so that it protects not only the fundamental right to health, but also our rights of privacy and free association.”

The ACLU also asked the federal Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under the Freedom of Information Act to turn over records related to the use of location data and conversations with tech companies about the matter.

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