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Zwicker: Balancing the priorities of public health, privacy

By Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker

In the face of the global coronavirus pandemic, our health and safety remain the No. 1 priority. When it is safe to do so we will need to reopen our state, restart our economy and get people back to work.

As Gov. Phil Murphy has made clear, the way to do this is by taking a data-driven approach that relies on social distancing to “flatten the curve,” using rapid, accurate, and widespread testing to identify those positive for the virus. The ability to then identify others that have been near this person for a period of time, known as “contact tracing” is essential.

In the absence of a vaccine, contact tracing and self-isolation are how we most effectively stop new infections, meaningfully reduce hospitalizations and fatalities, and eventually reopen our economy to restore jobs and get back to business as usual with the greatest amount of safety.

Efforts are already underway to significantly ramp up our ability to perform traditional, in-person contact interviews of those positive for the virus. This approach works by having teams of people, working with local health officials, available to contact family, friends and co-workers possibly at risk because a person testing positive identified being in contact with them.

Leveraging technology to support contact tracing done manually by people will be critical to boosting the accuracy and real-time collection of information on potential new infections.

Using GPS data or the Bluetooth functionality on our smartphones, technology-driven contact tracing would then fill any remaining information gaps by identifying those at risk for infection simply because they were in the same place at the same time as someone who tested positive. Effectively, this would enable strangers who shared the same line at the grocery store or were in close proximity on the same train to be notified of a potential risk, tested and subsequently isolated if found positive so the cycle of community spread can be broken.

Major tech companies and universities in the United States are already working together on this approach, developing the technological foundation that will be integrated into apps under development now. Such tools would assign unique but anonymous IDs to peoples’ phones enabling automatic detection of close proximity interactions, taking place for a certain length of time, with individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19. This information would then be used to alert people of possible exposure and shared with local health officials to inform our public health response.

Successful implementation of such technology, however, relies on the extent to which a majority of the roughly 80% of Americans owning a smartphone are willing to opt-in. And, as leading experts in the privacy community have pointed out, the success of voluntary participation heavily depends on strong privacy safeguards with guarantees that any use of data will only be for contact tracing purposes and that stored data would be deleted once the COVID-19 crisis is over.

Data privacy has long been an issue before the coronavirus. Combining people and tech-driven contact tracing approaches undoubtedly gives us the greatest chance to ease restrictions safely, but to see their success our data privacy does not need to be the tradeoff. With public trust and confidence guiding people’s decision to opt-in to the technology, government and private industry have the incentive to balance the priorities of data privacy and the public’s health and safety equally. In no way does one objective have to compromise the other.

Recognizing this, companies are already promising to set the highest standards for privacy when it comes to the responsible use of our data for contact tracing. Ensuring they are held accountable to these standards of data protection promised at the outset will largely depend on crafting thoughtful, deliberative and responsible public policy.

This is the challenge in front of us and we must act now. New Jerseyans have always been strong and resourceful. This time is no different.

This opinion piece was published in-print by the Star Ledger on April 29, 2020 and online by on May 2, 2020: