Special to TAPintoSPF. This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

Contact tracing is going to be a crucial part of trying to contain the spread of COVID-19 as New Jersey reopens, and some New Jersey legislators want to make sure that information revealed as a result is kept confidential and only stored for a limited time to protect residents’ privacy.

Both Gov. Phil Murphy and state health officials have said that using interviews, as well as digital data from Bluetooth or cellphone GPS tracking, is going to be vital to help stem future outbreaks of the coronavirus. Both will allow health officials to alert those who have been in contact with someone who tests positive and advise them to self-isolate or quarantine. That way, they won’t potentially spread the virus — which can be passed along by those who are asymptomatic — to family members or others.

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But contact tracing, along with greater testing, won’t work if people are not honest when responding to tracers or willing to provide digital data on their interactions. One reason they might be unwilling is fear the government might use the information for some other purpose. In addition, many Americans value privacy as a matter of course.

Protecting contact-tracing data

Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex) has drafted legislation (A-4170) that would prohibit the use of information collected as part of contact-tracing efforts for any other purpose and mandate that it be deleted after 30 days.

“The more protected the privacy is, the better the chance of people actually adopting and being willing to share information, and that’d be true whether it’s a phone call or it’s done by Bluetooth or GPS, and so we’ve got to get the privacy right,” he said. GPS location data, in particular, “is much more accurate, but it’s going to be voluntary.”

Zwicker said people here are not going to agree to the kind of aggressive tracking and resulting mandatory limitations on freedom that countries like China, South Korea and Singapore have used — some say very successfully — to stem the spread of COVID-19. It may be hard to even get some people to allow a tracer to look at their GPS data. A harder sell could be getting people to use a new app being developed by the nation’s tech giants Google and Apple meant to simplify tracing.

“You’re going to have to be confident that it will be used only to protect you and only for the pandemic and that means it needs to be used just for that, and then it needs to go away,” Zwicker said. “So that’s the point of the legislation.”

An app from Google and Apple

Google and Apple have announced a joint app designed to allow for easy tracking of anyone an individual has come into close contact with for a meaningful amount of time — likely closer than six feet for 10 minutes. That should make it easier to find and alert those at risk of getting sick because they encountered a person who has the virus. The information is to be anonymized to protect an individual’s privacy and only available to federal and possibly state or local health officials, but experts in the field worry that it could be de-anonymized and stored or used for some other purpose.

Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic) is a health care administrator specializing in the field of behavioral health and has seen the impact of the robust tracing used in Paterson, which has the highest COVID-19 case rate of any New Jersey city with a population of over 100,000. But she said the state needs to make sure it assesses the impact of the tracing technology as it moves forward with this very important next step.

“We really need to just take a breath and put some training and critical protocols in place and guidelines that will protect our citizens’ rights and their privacy and confidentiality,” said Sumter, who said she plans to join Zwicker in sponsoring the legislation. “That’s important. As much as I want to go fast, we have to make sure that we do it right, because if we miss and there’s a breach, there’s different consequences and we really want to avoid that happening.”

The power of cellphone tracking is already being used by Google and others to report down to the county level how often people are traveling away from home to visit stores, parks and other locations. For instance, a month after Murphy first closed restaurants and other locations in the state, these sites logged a drop of as much as 50% in travel, which demonstrated that people were following stay-at-home orders.

Earlier this month, Murphy announced plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to expand COVID-19 testing — prioritized for vulnerable populations, their caregivers, and frontline workers — and hire up to 5,000 people as part of an unprecedented statewide effort to track further spread of the disease. Murphy said these are two key aspects of his blueprint for reopening businesses and public spaces.

A contact-tracing corps

The state is planning to build a contact-tracing corps that will supplement some 800 staff and volunteers now doing this work on a local and county level. Plans include tapping public health students at Rutgers University and other colleges for assistance, plus contract with a staffing company to hire additional tracers. The state envisions an army of between 1,000 and 5,000 to do this work. Murphy said contact tracers will be paid $25 an hour, and will either be employed by the state, Rutgers or the contractor. (Interested individuals can sign up online.)

Their findings will be compiled in a system known as CommCore, a mobile data collection platform developed by the Massachusetts-based company Dimagi.

Zwicker’s bill would require state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli to publish, for public comment, guidance on how public health entities and third-party contractors can use data collected for contact tracing and how they will be required to ensure the security and confidentiality of that data, including any specific internal audit requirements to guard against the misuse or unauthorized disclosure of data.

A third party that misuses, unlawfully discloses, or retains COVID-19 contact tracing data shared with it by a public health entity beyond the date on which the data is required to be deleted will be liable to a civil penalty of up to $10,000.

Zwicker, who chairs the Assembly Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, said he plans to schedule a hearing on the measure as soon as possible so it can serve to guide state actions as officials work to put a robust contact-tracing program in place.

“It’s not simply the privacy,” he said. “It’s going to be the training. It’s going to be the education. It’s going to be not just what questions are going to be asked, but how are we going to train people to have these conversations and how can we bring in community leaders to help with this … It’s going to be all about, in the end, the trust of the public.”

To view this article in its original form, visit https://www.njspotlight.com/2020/05/can-bill-to-protect-contact-tracing-data-encourage-residents-to-participate-in-these-programs.