A Path Back to Normal? Previewing the New Google-Apple COVID-19 Contact Tracing Tools with Albert Gidari

In this episode of Stanford Legal, hosts Pam Karlan and Joe Bankman are joined by Al Gidari, Consulting Director of Privacy for the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. The three delve into the topic of contact tracing with the help of Bluetooth on smartphones in the era of COVID-19. Historically done manually with the help of trained individuals, contact tracing is one way to reduce the number of individuals infected during an epidemic or pandemic through systematically identifying who an individual has come into contact with.

Gidari, an expert in the field of technology and privacy, describes the potential for an application that would be voluntarily installed on individual’s smartphones. “[If you test positive,] your Bluetooth beacon will then send out a message automatically to everyone you’ve been in contact with and the log of those contacts have been downloaded and maintained on your device. That’s a critical privacy thing. It’s on your device. It’s not on a central government server.”

When Karlan asks if everyone would get a notice that one tested positive, Gidari highlights two important privacy features of the app. First, the app is anonymous in nature, meaning that someone who has come in contact with an individual who has tested positive would get a notification, but not any information about the person. Second, the data for the app is stored on your phone and not within the servers of a company or government, meaning they do not get access to this information either.

The app is not a replacement for manual contact tracing or public outreach, however. “We all don’t carry smartphones, while we have about 81% in the US penetration with smartphones, that means 19% of the people don’t… I think it’s really important to recognize that these apps are not substitutes for manual contact tracing and public health outreach to those communities: Homeless encampments, immigrants who live in crowded conditions, those who may be undocumented and may be fearful of an app or testing or working with public health authorities.” All being said, Gidari is happy with the privacy design of the app and hopes it will help curb the pandemic.

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