NYC Public Advocate Seeks Contact Tracing Data Safeguards

By Kelly Zegers
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Law360 (May 4, 2020, 7:47 PM EDT) -- New York City's Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams is seeking assurances of safety and privacy for data collected through upcoming state and city contact tracing efforts to keep tabs on the spread of COVID-19.

Williams acknowledged during a virtual news conference Monday that contact tracing — the tracking of whose had contact with COVID-19 positive individuals — is a critical step to getting out from under the pandemic, but said data needs to be collected in a way that doesn't do harm and doesn't allow information to end up in the "wrong hands." That includes immigration enforcement agencies and third-party businesses, Williams and other experts in the briefing said.

"We have an ability to get this right at the beginning so we don't have to come back and sound the fire bells while this is going on," he said.

Without transparency about what will happen with the information, the public's trust is on the line, according to Williams and experts invited to his news conference.

The public advocate on Friday sent letters to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio with questions about who will have access to the data and what forms of technology will be used in the process. 

"Impulsive decisions without a plan to store, use, and ultimately destroy this data can result in misuse, violations of privacy, and false positives," Williams wrote the governor. 

Cuomo on Thursday announced that a contact tracing pilot program, with support from former NYC mayor and presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg, will begin in the coming weeks. The program is expected to have between 6,400 and 17,000 tracers statewide, depending on the projected number of cases.

Contact tracing teams will work remotely under the program with four steps to keeping an eye on the spread of the virus. First, labs will report positive cases of COVID-19 to tracers, who will then interview infected patients to identify those who they may have been in contact with in the past 14 days.

The tracer will go on to notify and interview each contact to alert them of their infection risk and instruct them to isolate for 14 days so they don't spread the virus to others. Those contacts will be monitored by text throughout their quarantine to see if they show any symptoms.

DeBlasio announced last week that the city is looking to quickly hire 1,000 contact tracers to ensure all confirmed cases are treated promptly.

Contact tracing, combined with testing, is the next major step to monitoring and controlling the spread of the disease, Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist, said during the news conference.

"It's impossible to do contact tracing without transparency about how the data is held because otherwise people won't trust us in giving that data," she said.

Undocumented immigrants are among vulnerable communities that Williams said need to be assured by a "culturally and linguistically competent workforce" that their data will not be used for anything other than its intended purpose. This means they need to know their information won't be up for grabs by law enforcement or immigration agencies, added Cynthia Conti-Cook, a tech fellow at the Ford Foundation.

"If the idea is to have a comprehensive contact tracing program, you really want everyone to buy into it and feel like they can share their information and that information won't be used against them," Conti-Cook said.

The governor and mayor's offices did not immediately return requests for comment. A spokesman for the governor told the New York Daily News on Friday that the data will reside with the state, not a private foundation.

The public advocate is raising privacy concerns in New York as Congress hears calls to enact safeguards for data in contact tracing methods that would involve companies, such as Apple and Google, using technology to collect vital but potentially sensitive health and location information. 

Advocacy groups such as Center for Democracy and Technology and the American Civil Liberties Union have urged policymakers and companies to ensure that any personal data or other information used to fight, measure or track the pandemic be "necessary and proportionate" to both the pandemic response and the safety of the public, and that this information not be used for unexpected purposes, principles that could now factor more prominently than ever in the privacy debate.

--Additional reporting by Allison Grande. Editing by Emily Kokoll.

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