U.S. Lawmaker Says COVID-19 Contact Tracing Should be Voluntary

Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) wrote in a letter released Wednesday that all digital COVID-19 contact tracing technology should be transparent, voluntary, and contain only the information that identifies those most at risk of contracting the disease. Contact tracing is a method of tracking an infectious disease’s spread and notifying any individuals who might have been exposed. As an advocate for online privacy, Markey urged the Trump administration that any data regarding contact tracing be kept secure and to a minimum.

Markey voiced his concerns in a letter addressed to Vice President Pence. “The federal government must provide leadership, coordination, and guidance to ensure that contact tracing efforts are effective and do not infringe upon individuals’ civil liberties, including the right to privacy,” wrote the senator. He also requested that contact tracing be transparent about what happens to any data that is collected.

The letter outlined nine principles key to what Markey considers a comprehensive contact tracing plan: Integration with a public health strategy, a contact tracing workforce surge, voluntary participation, transparency, data minimization, data use limitations, data security, equity, and accountability.

Big tech companies have faced scrutiny by other members of Congress, including Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). In a recent letter addressed to Google and Apple’s chief executives, Hawley insisted that they be held liable for any privacy failures related to contact tracing. “If you seek to assure the public, make your stake in this project personal,” wrote Hawley.

Google and Apple said recently they were collaboratively designing smartphone apps to help identify and alert people who have crossed paths with a contagious person. According to Reuters, both companies said that their technology, which will be released in May, “would not track users’ locations but their interactions, that interactions would be anonymized and nothing would be monetized.” Several members of Congress have already questioned the data collection practices of these screening services.