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

ATLANTA — You may have heard of the term “contact tracing” used by scientists and officials during the last couple months of the coronavirus pandemic.

It involves giving up some of your personal information. In fact, it's in the White House guidelines for reopening.

We’re asking what happens to that information, and who has access to it?

Channel 2’s Audrey Washington looked into how Georgia plans to do it, and what it means for your privacy.

There’s already a pilot program happening in metro Atlanta that is testing contact tracing through an app.

If you’re positive, you’re asked to voluntarily share who you’ve been in contact with, which is a critical tool in managing the disease.

But a security expert Washington spoke with said he’s concerned some tools used to trace may not keep private information safe. Other health officials say it helps track the spread.

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“Contract tracing in the mist of this pandemic, is a very important aspect of the response,” said Michael Hokanson, from North Central Health District.

Hokanson said contact tracing works by tracking critical information about a person positive for COVID-19.

“Their habits, their travel their daily routine,” Hokanson said.

Hokanson said even though it’s a critical part of managing the virus, it’s a lot of work.

“When the number of cases blew up very quickly, we did not have the manpower to do that contact tracing,” Hokanson said.


Because of a manpower shortage, information security expert Willis McDonald said technology is a smart way to track coronavirus.

“A lot of times we’re not even thinking of who we’ve come in contact with, and there’s just not enough manpower in the health services to do this type of work, at least not in an efficient manner,” McDonald said.

But McDonald said he questions if the technology is always safe.

“One of the things that hasn’t been addressed upfront in a lot of these apps is what happens after this is tracked? Does the date keep being collected? Where does that go?” McDonald said.

Now governments around the world are using apps and smartphones to collect information. Some countries use technology to track and even restrict citizen’s movements depending on who they’ve been in contact with.

Last month Apple and Google announced they’re partnering up with governments to help track the spread with Bluetooth technology. Their goal is to alert people exposed to the disease.

[CDC spreads out across Fulton, DeKalb counties to test people for coronavirus antibodies]

Georgia’s Department of Public Health is now piloting an app to track contact tracing here.

“It’s mainly text messaging online forum,” Hokanson said.

The pilot is happening in Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale counties. Also in middle Georgia and the coastal district in Davannah.

According to health officials, anyone who tests positive will be enrolled and voluntarily give information about their close contacts.

Washington wanted to ask community health officials more about the new app, but they would not do an interview while the program is in the pilot phase.

They did say the app does not use GPS or Bluetooth to monitor people.

McDonald hopes any tracing technology is secure, and the data is deleted after it’s used because your private information may be valuable to people you don’t want using it.

“This would be interesting data to advertisers, law enforcement, marketing companies, knowing who you come in contact with on a regular basis is pretty valuable,” McDonald said.

Health officials didn’t directly answer Washington’s questions about what happens with the data after they’re done using it, but they did say the data is considered protected health information and they will not sell it or share it. They added that more information will be coming out this week.