Can Tech Help Re-Open the States?

By Vanessa Grossl, CSG policy analyst

Contact tracing is a pillar in disease control that has been around for decades and is commonly used for a number of infections. In light of COVID-19, a few states have moved toward using technology to help monitor and track residents who choose to download their apps and opt-in. States that have implemented the voluntary cellphone tracking apps or that have contracted with developers to help build apps see this as a way to help build confidence and reopen their economies. Research has shown that so far, these contract tracing apps are off to a slow start in states. South Dakota has the highest participation rate — about 2% of residents have the state’s app on their phones. 

North Dakota and South Dakota are using an app first envisioned in North Dakota, which helps users track and anonymously store their own data. Utah’s voluntary phone app enables public health departments to track the location and connections of people who test positive for the coronavirus.  Although the apps have been out for nearly a month, governors haven’t had much luck getting the widespread participation needed for them to work effectively

How the Apps Work

The way Utah’s app is designed to work is twofold: it disseminates information about COVID-19-related illness and tracks the movements of those who use it so that if an individual gets sick later, after a lengthy incubation period, health care workers can go back to see who they’ve crossed paths with in an attempt to help identify and notify contacts. Users must choose whether to share data through the app with health care workers, and data that is shared is only visible to health care workers. Users are instructed that they own their data being stored by the app and can decide to erase it at any time. Both location data and any symptom data that users voluntarily share is automatically deleted after 30 days. Because usage rates have been low so far, the app has only been used to help people assess their systems and determine when and where to seek testing. 

The app developed for the Dakotas works differently. It assigns a random ID number to each user who downloads the app, which allows it to anonymously cache their location data. Users are also encouraged to categorize their location data by labeling it with things like work, school or groceries. The app reportedly only stores users’ location data for 10 minutes. If a user later tests positive for COVID-19, they can then voluntarily choose to share their data with the respective state’s department of health in order for them to initiate the contact tracing that experts believe is essential to help stop the spread of the virus. 

Tracking app construction has become a major area of focus during the COVID-19 pandemic, with both the private sector and academia working to build the best solution. Major players in this work include Apple, Google and MIT, along with a wide array of app developers and tech start-ups. Experts believe that in order to successfully execute contact tracing using tech solutions, the private sector will have to partner with government leaders who may be able to both legitimize the use of and help disseminate a positive message about the technologies being utilized as emergency response solutions to concerned constituents.

States Using Metadata to Monitor Movement

Kansas and Colorado are among several states already using third-party data collection programs to monitor cellphone metadata, which is gathered anonymously to pinpoint whether people in specific areas of their states are following government recommendations/orders to stay at home or refrain from traveling out of state. The data allows state officials to track whether their guidelines are being followed. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has set up an online form where people who are feeling sick can voluntarily provide cellphone information that allows the state to both record their GPS data and have its health officials contact them.

Privacy Concerns

Contact tracing methods assisted by technology raise a number of privacy concerns. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently released a white paper in which they caution that any system using cellphone data must be voluntary, encrypted, time-limited (with a specific end point to the data collection) and conscious of the “rights of privacy and free association.”

Alternative to Tech 

Alternative strategies for tracking the virus have been considered or employed by a number of states including Rhode Island, California, Arkansas, Massachusetts and Washington. These include more traditional tracing measures in which a team of people are hired specifically to call those who are infected with COVID-19 and ask them about their movements and encounters with others. States will need to employ and train thousands of health investigators to make these systems effective. Another drawback to using this method is that the information gleaned from personal interviews is sometimes based on faulty memories or comes from patients who do not wish to disclose their full range of activities.

What Do U.S. Residents Think?

A Pew Research Center survey this month of more than 4,900 adults from across the U.S. found that 60% said they didn’t believe that tracking people by cellphone would help stop the spread of the virus, although more than half of participants said that it was at least “somewhat acceptable” for the government to track the cellphones of people who have tested positive for COVID-19. Some 45% said it was acceptable for the government to track people who may have had contact with someone who tested positive. The survey found less support — 37% — for monitoring smartphones to make sure people are following social distancing guidelines.

States Face Tough Decisions

Most Americans are aware that the majority of the cellphones they carry already have GPS applications that keep track of where they’ve been.  Still, states need to find ways to ensure that the data that’s collected is stored securely and treated appropriately so that users know who has access to their data and can determine who can use it and in what ways. The appropriate legal frameworks have yet to be established as new technologies rapidly emerge and evolve, outpacing regulatory efforts. Tools that are meant to keep communities safe, such as contact tracing apps, should be used with transparency and informed consent.  Otherwise, governments risk creating or building upon a climate of distrust. 

While creating apps to help with contact tracing seemed like a promising opportunity for states to act quickly and innovatively, these initiatives can be expensive and are somewhat of a gamble. Early adoption rates point to the need for reliance on more traditional tried-and-true methods. Due to the sheer number of projected COVID-19 infections being projected as states relax restrictions, states will have to act immediately to get robust contact tracing systems in place, staffed, ramped up and efficiently coordinated.