Our twenty-second white paper in the COVID-19 series is “Digital Tools for COVID-19 Contact Tracing: Identifying and Mitigating the Equity, Privacy, and Civil Liberties Concerns,” by Koustubh “K.J.” Bagchi, Christine Bannan, Sharon Bradford Franklin, Heather Hurlburt, Lauren Sarkesian, Ross Schulman, and Joshua Stager.
Many state governments and public health authorities in the United States are turning to digital tools to assist contact tracing efforts in response to the coronavirus pandemic despite equity, privacy, and civil liberties concerns. The digital divide, pronounced lack of trust in government among certain communities, and privacy risks posed by collecting personal data at scale make effective deployment of digital contact tracing tools challenging. But if governments decide they need to supplement manual contact tracing due to capacity issues, digital tools that use exclusively Bluetooth-based technology may be useful, as long as public health authorities implement proper safeguards. This paper outlines the equity, privacy, and civil liberties risks posed by digital tools as well as safeguards that policymakers can adopt to mitigate these concerns. Further, the paper recommends that policymakers take affirmative steps to address vulnerable populations that are unlikely to be reached by digital apps, partner with developers and community organizations, promote public education campaigns when deploying digital tools, take steps to close the digital divide, and pass comprehensive privacy legislation with effective enforcement mechanisms.