Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, nonemergency police calls reporting social distancing violations have increased in cities like Boston, New York, and Chicago, with police calls and stops disproportionately made in Black communities. In New York City, more than 90 percent of the people arrested and 82 percent of those who received summonses for violating social distancing rules were Black or Latinx. Unfortunately, contact tracing apps stand to exacerbate this type of police enforcement of social distancing and could incentivize app users or employers to seek retribution and call the police after getting an exposure notification.
As states across the country reopen, they are being urged to use technology-assisted contact tracing applications to determine who should go back into isolation or quarantine. Apple and Google, for example, tout that their COVID-19 exposure notification system uses Bluetooth or geolocation to notify anyone who comes in close proximity with those who self-report an infection. And now, private employers and a few states are already deploying their own tech-assisted contact tracing efforts.
Although well-meaning, these efforts seem detached from a reality that triggers fears of targeted surveillance, police violence, and critical questions of efficacy and equity. At Data for Black Lives, we routinely investigate the harms that big data and tracking devices can inflict on Black communities. We are not convinced that contact tracing apps will prove worth the risks involved.
Given the current social climate — in which issues of inequity are cojoined with a public health crisis — we particularly push back on the unmitigated trust given to companies to assure us that they will not allow law enforcement to use contact tracing apps for punitive or surveillance purposes, even for apps that do not purport to disclose user identity and location. The stakes are too high, especially at a time when police involvement in the coronavirus pandemic response in Black communities is so much higher than in white communities.
Although Apple and Google claim to have safeguards to anonymize personally identifying data — and to prevent users from gathering location data and keep data from being centrally gathered — these safeguards may neither be sufficient nor fool-proof guarantees to circumvent their use as personal detective surveillance systems. Reliance on contact tracing apps can enable people to investigate on their own those who may have COVID-19 and use that information to inform decisions of employment, detention, benefits, and access to public spaces.
Law enforcement in Minnesota recently claimed to use contact tracing to track protesters during the Minneapolis protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd. Although they’ve since retracted the comments, the public has limited ways to verify those statements and should not be asked — especially now — to trust police assurances that they are not using contact tracing information to spy on protesters.
These concerns of surveillance are only compounded by the lingering question of efficacy: Will the contact tracing apps work for people hardest hit by the coronavirus?
The answer is no. Contact tracing apps are too contingent on self-reporting and too imprecise to reliably identify risk of contagion. As others have opined, the stigma of self-reporting an infection probably outweighs any incentive to do so. The apps are designed to signal proximity even when two people may be separated by a barrier, as in a car stuck in traffic, or in a neighboring apartment unit. False positives are bound to occur disproportionately among people who live in high-density neighborhoods and work essential jobs. The app operates as if mere proximity is the singular cause of exposure, obscuring the cumulative degrees of contact required for exposure.
As we’ve seen in the past, there are costs attached to using the every-little-bit-helps argument to justify unproven technologies or, worse, to cover up short-sighted attempts that discount unresolved problems. The illusion of progress may prove harmful and detract from meaningful efforts to address protecting people from COVID-19. Developing a sustainable system that empowers people with sufficient information and access to public health resources is the best way forward.
Nicole Triplett is director of policy at Data for Black Lives.