Lawmakers weigh benefits of digital contact tracing with privacy protections

ATLANTA — Lawmakers are looking into how contact tracing through our smart phones can help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“Contact tracing, often called the linchpin of an outbreak response, is critical to identify those who have potentially been exposed and to halt onward transmission,” said Krutika Kuppall, an infectious disease physician.

Some cautioned there may be privacy concerns if digital tracing methods don’t do enough to protect personal information.

“The tradeoffs that we make responding to COVID-19 have real financial and economic impacts,” said Rep. Bill Foster (D-Illinois).

[RELATED: What is ‘contact tracing,’ and how are Georgia health departments using it?]

In the United States, contact tracing is voluntary.

Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Georgia) said we have a low participation rate around the country.

“Citizens will need to trust the apps that they are using and feel confident their privacy will not be violated,” Loudermilk said.  “In order to have that trust, it is critical that citizens understand what data will be collected, who will have access to the data, and how the data will be used.”

Digital tracing uses data from public WIFI and smartphone sensors to identify people who may have been in close proximity to an infected person.

Members from a House panel heard from the co-founder of the CVKey Project, an app meant to help trade COVID-19 infections.

“It focuses on individual symptom checking, policy communications across communities, and access control to venues such as universities and schools,” said Brian McClendon, CVKey co-founder and Chief Executive Officer. “The data that eventually gets uploaded in the rare case when you’ve been infected is a set of random numbers that have no personal identifiable information.”

Contact tracing in the U.S. is done at the state level.