Illinois wants hundreds to potentially thousands of contact tracing workers trained and ready to start tracking the spread of the new coronavirus by the end of this month. At the same time, big tech companies are developing technology that could help with tracing efforts.
This week's Illinois Issues report looks at what’s at stake for Illinoisans as the worlds of technology and public health collide.
You probably have heard a lot about contact tracing in the last few weeks, but now might be a good opportunity for a review.
Contact tracing is a public health strategy that’s been around for a long time. Trained workers are tasked with investigating the spread of a given disease. They get in touch with anyone an infected person may have been in contact with. They then let those people know they may have been exposed so they can then take steps to prevent further spreading the disease.
Policymakers like Gov. J.B. Pritzker believe it’s crucial to getting COVID-19 outbreaks under control.
“We are spinning up a massive contact tracing effort, and over the next few weeks that will be launched," Pritzker told reporters earlier this week. "It will be a large effort that is going to take us some time to hire up."
Pritzker has said in order to get the program going, the state will take in those who already know how to contact trace, and will offer free training to hires who are new to the field. Meanwhile, Oakton Community College in the Chicago suburbs says it’s offering contact tracing courses too.
All of that is part and parcel of a traditional contact tracing program. But two tech companies want to boost traditional efforts by doing what they do best. Apple and Google have teamed up to work on new Bluetooth-based software that's supposed to debut this month. In essence, it would allow a phone to emit signals that track if a phone's been in close proximity to someone who has COVID-19.
Here’s how it would work: users would be given the choice to allow their phones to emit a randomized Bluetooth ID to all phones within a certain distance. If two users are close to each other for five minutes or more, the app records what happened. Then if any of those people test positive for COVID-19, they let the app know and it’ll alert those they came in contact with.
This could be a game changer for contact tracing, except there are a few issues at stake.
Jacob Wright, who directs the public policy arm of Edelson PC Law Firm in Chicago, is an expert in data privacy. That's perhaps the biggest sticking point of this new app.
“A lot of these companies have lost a lot of user trust, and I think this plays into the contact tracing and whether or not people not only trust these private companies, but there’s been questions about whether this information is going to be shared with the government regulators or the public health entities," Wright said.
Apple and Google didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story. But they have told users the current app design never reveals any identifiable info, and that the data it collects is not going to be stored on a central server.
But as Wright points out, users have to take the developers at their word.
“They’re basically the gatekeepers of their policies," he explained. "They’re saying a lot of things that seem good and are good from a privacy perspective, but it’s also up to them to enforce it.”
Why this matters so much in Illinois is that we already have some pretty strong data privacy laws. The Personal Information Protection Act, for example, outlines measures companies have to follow to keep personal info secure. And then there’s the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), which requires firms to get a user’s informed consent before using things like fingerprints.
The consequences for breaking those laws can be dire. Early this year, a court found Facebook broke BIPA and ordered it to pay Illinois users $550 million.
On top of the legal roadblocks, there’s another element to this that’s key: will anyone want to use this app? Stacey Gray of the Future of Privacy Forum said a lot is riding on user buy-in.
"I think, [it's] an acknowledged truth about a lot of public health efforts: that if they’re not voluntary, in many cases you can defeat the original purpose," she said.
If Apple and Google’s tech is going to be successful here, experts believe somewhere between 60 to 80 percent of phone users have to agree to use it.
Abe Scarr of Illinois Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) argues it's particularly important when it comes to contact tracing. Less people using it means less reliable data for public health officials to keep tabs on.
“If I’m going out broadcasting my Bluetooth, but only one out of five other people are doing it, then it’s just going to have limited impact in terms of its ability to help with contact tracing," Scarr said.
The only way to bulk up utilization numbers is if both Apple and Google make a pledge:
“If you can just say ‘This data will not be used for advertising, any commercial purposes at all...that it’s going to be siloed off and only used for public health purposes,’ I think that would go a long way," Stacey Gray explained.
Now, the Illinois legislature could pass a law and require companies to make that promise, but Rep. Ann Williams of (D, Chicago), who’s spearheaded data privacy efforts, said that might be a big hurdle, even now.
“The companies [Apple and Google] have been unwilling to accept even the most basic regulation, and have opposed very simple bills in Springfield to notify consumers that their data was being collected and tracked," Williams said. "So, this is a very big deal for people.”
Williams and others are in agreement about one thing: if Apple and Google see this app through, it would be a tool for Illinois contact tracers to use, rather than a replacement for them.
“Any tool that we can use to mitigate the damage and stop the further escalation [of COVID-19] is useful and is worth exploring, but I’m just saying that these privacy considerations have to be a part of that conversation," Williams said.
Abe Scarr believes while privacy should be forefront, smartphone users in Illinois should consider using the app when it debuts as a matter of public duty.
"We think it is important that people opt in and participate in these programs because we think we need to be doing everything we can to stop the spread of the virus," he said.