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Communications of the ACM


Digital Contact Tracing May Protect Privacy, But It Is Unlikely to Stop the Pandemic

smartwatch displays COVID-19 update

Credit: Kevin R. Yin / Shutterstock

It is difficult to imagine a timelier topic for this inaugural Communications Privacy column than the privacy issues associated with COVID-19 apps. Against the backdrop of protests around the world opposing racism and police killings of Black people, we have a newly found understanding of the need for protection from surveillance, while also feeling the urgency of shutting down the spread of a deadly virus. While many computer scientists are looking to technology for privacy-protective ways to track COVID-19 exposure, Privacy-enhancing technologies (PETs) may prove ineffective without more widely available COVID-19 tests, human-centered design, and complementary laws and policies.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread in spring 2020, researchers and public health officials pursued digital contact tracing and exposure notification tools to assist human contact tracers. Initial efforts to build these tools focused on utility but were quickly met with questions about privacy. Although there is compelling public interest in sharing data to reduce virus spread, concerns arose that this data might be used for other purposes. Indeed, as protest marches became commonplace and police sought out instigators, rumors spread that police might be using data collected by contact-tracing apps. While I have seen no evidence that this actually occurred, the concern is legitimate and may slow app adoption. In the U.S., people of color have been disproportionately hard hit by COVID-19 but may also have the most to fear in using these apps.


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