Millions around the world are still suffering through the COVID-19 pandemic and, while experts think the worst will be behind us in 12-18 months, there’s no telling how long we will be feeling the effects of this health crisis. We’re in uncharted territory.
As a nation, we were wildly unprepared for this catastrophe and, by necessity, we are now forced to play catch-up as we try to contain it. As we try to stem the tide of infections, health and tech experts are turning to the idea of contact tracing to stymie the spread and help society return to a new normal even as the virus remains active.
Contact tracing at its core relies on sensitive personal data like location and health status, in turn making it extremely susceptible to violations of privacy by both the public and private sectors. To ensure consumer privacy standards are met and to create a program that is transparent, consensual, and successful, the United States federal government needs to act fast to create a temporary subcommittee in the Senate to regulate and oversee any contact tracing platform that is seeded to the general public.
Establishing a democratic system
Creating and managing a committee on something as crucial and private as personal data doesn’t need to be as daunting as it sounds. Congress has many helpful resources at its fingertips that could be tapped to quickly and efficiently organize an overseeing body that has consumers’ best interests in mind.
In fact, the Senate Judiciary Committee already has a Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law with members who are well versed in laws and policies regarding the collection, protection, use, and dissemination of commercial information by the private sector, including online privacy issues. Given this committee’s background and expertise, these bipartisan members could be used to make up a temporary Subcommittee on Contact Tracing in the Senate.
This subcommittee, in addition to any contact tracing program, should only last for the duration of the pandemic and would be decommissioned when a successful vaccine has been widely administered and the virus has been effectively suppressed. It could be funded as a part of a congressional coronavirus relief bill as a means to protect citizens and provide a viable solution to getting society back to a state of normalcy.
The recommended members would be tasked with upholding and enforcing certain principles for any proposed contact tracing program to ensure personal data is not mistreated or abused. For example, citizens would need to be able to see exactly what information is being collected on them and who it is being shared with, such as government officials or corporations, and this data could not be shared unknowingly with any other organization — public or private.
Additionally, these contact tracing technologies should be restricted to public health uses only and must be carried out in a decentralized approach. Any centralized database of precise person-to-person interactions or geo-location data is susceptible to abuse or data breach that could quickly put the general public in danger.
Finally, this program would need to be voluntary and fully transparent. If a citizen opts out, any information collected on them must be deleted immediately and all data collection must stop from that point forward.
To uphold and regulate these principles on a national scale, any organization creating a contact tracing program must work with the subcommittee to gain special approval through an application process before releasing their technology to consumers.
The subcommittee would have the authority of the federal government to administer clearly spelled out repercussions for any organization or individual that violates these principles or moves forward without explicit approval. For example, if a technology does not comply, the subcommittee would work with major technology providers such as Apple and Google and telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T to immediately disable it. The subcommittee would also have authority to administer any fines or sanctions on companies or individuals that break said principles or violate any terms of consumer privacy.
Encouraging adoption and finding a solution
For any contact tracing program to actually be successful, it needs to be widely adopted by the general public. To encourage this, the Subcommittee for Contact Tracing would also be tasked with working with public health experts — such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — to create a general public awareness campaign that would clearly communicate what contact tracing is, why it’s necessary to contain the virus, and what options individuals have to opt in or opt out. Similar to current CDC guidelines available online and on TV, any informational materials on the program would be widely distributed and consistently shared by state leaders nationwide to advocate for extensive participation.
With a transparent, well-defined, and voluntary program overseen by a Senate subcommittee like the one described above, Americans would not only have more trust in any contact tracing platform but would also feel more empowered to participate in order to improve the public’s health and safety. Additionally, any organizations developing these technologies would be held accountable if they put consumer privacy at risk or do not comply with the principles set in place to protect the general public.
In times of global crisis, we must put everything on the table for the greater good of humanity, but we must do so with the proper safeguards to protect the rights of American citizens.
Jeremy Tillman is President of Ghostery.