The Cost Of Contact Tracing

RYAN CALO: Who you know and where you are and your health status.

GARCIA: Ryan Calo teaches law at the University of Washington. Unlike in many countries, there is no centralized government app in the U.S. Instead, private companies like Apple and Google are involved in developing apps, and so are universities like MIT, and also some local governments.

SMITH: The results, he says, have been a little spotty. For example, three states have developed apps for contact tracing - Alabama, South Dakota and North Dakota, where Nicole Lennick works. And in that case, Ryan says, state health officials partnered with a location tracking app called Bison Tracker. Bison Tracker was a little app used by fans of the Bismarck Bison football team.

CALO: An app that helps you tailgate by figuring out who - what other fans you are close to.

GARCIA: So it's pretty much the same technology that you need for contact tracing. North Dakota partnered with Bison Tracker to make its app. And Ryan says the result was not ideal.

CALO: It was riddled with problems. One, it was sharing some kinds of information with Foursquare and Google. And then when confronted with it, the state and the company they were working with said, oh, gosh. You know, we're going to address this in our privacy policy or make a change.

SMITH: Ryan says this was probably just a mistake, but it was a mistake that handed over people's data to some big private companies.

GARCIA: And meanwhile, he says, the ticking clock on getting contact tracing apps up and running could end up rushing the process and mean that a whole lot of really important stuff falls through the cracks. Money is so tight for local governments right now, and human contact tracing is expensive and time-consuming. So an app that helps people feel safe and can reach thousands of people in an instant and could potentially contain the disease, well, that could seem really enticing.

SMITH: There is legislation in front of Congress now that would regulate the information contact tracers could access and also how they would use that information. Ryan says legislation could help address privacy concerns and give guidance to companies and governments who are making these apps.

CALO: And there are a number of different protections that can be put in place. And those protections range from making sure that you only collect the data that you need to do the job, securing that data against cyberattack but also physically, physical security, and really guarantees or as close as you can come to guarantees that the data won't be used for some other purpose that wasn't expected - some commercial purpose, some law enforcement purpose - and that after - knock on wood - after this pandemic that the data will be deleted.

GARCIA: Ryan says this is a crisis, and we have to move quickly. That is paramount. And there is a chance that apps could save lives and save jobs, maybe help the economy open more quickly. But, Ryan says, there really just still are a lot of unanswered questions about how they should work. Plus, they won't necessarily help some of the most vulnerable people - low-income people who cannot afford smartphones and older people who might not be comfortable with the technology.

SMITH: So, says Ryan, human contact tracers like Nicole Lennick are still crucial - calling people up, asking the more they've been, who they've seen, calling those people.

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