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It’s Public Health Vs. Privacy As San Diego County Considers Contact Tracing App

Part two of a two-part series.

A phone displays Care19, the contact tracing app created by the North Dakota ...

Photo by Claire Trageser

Above: A phone displays Care19, the contact tracing app created by the North Dakota Department of Health, May 6, 2020.

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The county is among governments worldwide considering using smartphone apps to help with the tracking of people exposed to the coronavirus. But not everyone is willing to use them.

Aired: May 7, 2020 |

Part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.

With state and local officials now gradually lifting lockdown orders, attention is turning to contact tracing and the potential of using smartphone apps to track those infected with the coronavirus and who they interact with.

That doesn’t sit well with Khalid Alexander.

The Southeast San Diego resident wants this pandemic to end like everyone else and he understands the need for social distancing and other measures to control the spread. But there is no way he would put a government-run contact tracing app on his smartphone.

"For me, it's combining the two things I distrust the most: government and technology," said Alexander, president of the advocacy nonprofit Pillars of the Community. "Mixing the two together without understanding the oversight, objectives, how information is used, so many questions that are surrounding it, there would have to be a lot of information and education to make me remotely comfortable with it."

Downtown San Diego resident Marianne Erikson has a different point of view.

"If the government really wanted to track me they could," she said. "In this case they're tracking because it will help all of us, so the more they know, the more we know. And making everyone stay at home so that people are out of work is not good."

The county is among governments worldwide considering using smartphone apps to help with the tracking of people exposed to the coronavirus. But not everyone is willing to use them.

RELATED: San Diego Gearing Up To Deploy Hundreds Of Coronavirus Trackers

Experts around the world agree that unless and until we get a vaccine, contract tracing, which is the tracking of interactions infected people have had with others so all in the group can be notified and possibly isolated, is a crucial component to reopening society. But as the opinions of Alexander and Erikson illustrate, there are a number of issues at play.

High rates of noncompliance

A recent Washington Post poll found 40 percent of Americans say they are either unable or unwilling to use contact tracing apps. The poll found about a sixth of people don't have smartphones, and those rates are higher among seniors, who are more susceptible to COVID-19.

If the non-compliance rate ends up being this high, then the apps won’t work. A Oxford University study found the apps would need a 60 percent usage rate to stop the spread.

The apps built by governments in the U.S. would most likely operate on technology from Google and Apple, and use bluetooth, not GPS, to determine who you've been close to. That's what other countries, including Singapore, Australia, France and Germany are looking at doing or have already done.

The lack of geolocating in the apps means they can't track your location, though they still could potentially know where you've been by tracking the bluetooth devices around your phone.

The apps then store identifying tokens from all of the other phones they’ve been near. In some countries, if you were infected, the app automatically sends an alert to all those phones. But in the Google and Apple versions, people can choose whether to send an alert to all those contacts.

"That's crazy," said Stewart Baker, who until 2009 was the head of policy for the Department of Homeland Security and managed other virus outbreaks. "When you find out you have been infected and it comes time to send a notice, the selfish person would say, what am I going to get out of this? A lot of people could say no, so I'm not sure you should give people this option."

In fact, Baker thinks the government should make the apps mandatory.

"We're in a different situation, a different crisis, and we need tools that actually save lives," he said. ”We're going to make compromises about privacy, as we already have. Two months ago if I said: 'Do you think the government could tell you to stay home and lose your job?' We would never do that, and now we're accepting it more or less because the alternative is worse. That's a much greater privacy intrusion."

But Adam Schwartz, a senior lawyer at the privacy organization Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that's a false equivalency.

"There's this tendency for people to say, Silicon Valley you need to nerd harder, come up with a magic app to save us from this situation," he said. "The problem is when the proposal for the magic app is inherently intrusive to our privacy. "

Guidelines needed

Schwartz said he does not object to governments using contact tracing apps across the board, as long as there are guidelines. They must be voluntary, people must be able to delete sensitive contacts, and the data can’t be stored for longer than two weeks, he said. And he wants people to realize that apps won't always work.

"People need to be realistic, because there are a lot of false positives," Schwartz said. "You could have two cars with windows up that stop next to each other and you'd get pinged as a contact. At best, they are highly limited, and would only make a marginal difference."

Schwartz also has concerns about abuse: police could use apps to track people, or employers could use them to try to block unionizing efforts.

"We're all too familiar with the norm that the government, when faced with crisis, seizes new surveillance powers and when crisis abates, it keeps them," he said. "Here we are 20 years after 9/11, and many of those powers are very much still in place."

But Baker said those concerns aren't warranted in this case, because the data would be reserved for public health authorities. And, he said, we’ve already lost most of our privacy.

"If you worry that the government will seize info and misuse it, that ship has sailed," he said. "Where you spend all your time and who with, that information is already collected by Google. The government could just go to Google with a subpoena and say, give me that data."

But Alexander, the Southeast San Diego resident, says the surveillance can always get worse

"We're not very far off from targeting Muslim communities, FBI surveillance, going into mosques, harassing people for no other reason than being Muslims," he said.

Even if that is not the reality, as long as many people share Alexander’s perceptions and won’t install the app, then the argument will be moot because the participation level won’t be high enough.

Listen to this story by Claire Trageser.

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Photo of Claire Trageser

Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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