New York, NY—In the latest installment of Community Board 8’s contact tracing sessions, the head of NYC Health + Hospitals Test & Trace Corps applauded the introduction of New York’s COVID Exposure Notification App that enhances the standard contact tracing system it has built out, while a privacy lawyer and technologist said that contact tracing apps aren’t necessarily living up to their promise of securing one’s identity.
Dr. Ted Long of NYC Health + Hospitals explained that the public hospital has hired nearly 4,000 contact tracers, more than half of them from the hardest hit communities by the coronavirus, which has contributed to identifying up to 91 percent of new cases across New York City.
“Our contact tracing system has evolved since we first started it; actually by the metrics we have, the strongest it has ever been, and that’s all doing contact tracing by having people call you, people knocking on your door, people from your community that lived through the same thing that you did last March and April, the people that you are more likely to trust,” said Long.
So, he sees the one-month old COVID Exposure Notification App as an enhancement to the work that the 4,000 contact tracers are performing.
According to Long, the app works by proximity.
“Think of it as your phone having a six-foot ring around you; anybody who comes into that ring for a period of 10 minutes or more, that person is designated as a close contact.”
He stressed that there is no GPS tracking of an individual’s movements.
Kevin Sheldon, Lead Project Manager for New York’s COVID Exposure Notification App, said that there is actually no data connection between the app itself and the standard contact tracing system.
“There’s no exchange of data, there’s no personal identifiable information that the app collects. The main purpose of the app is to really spread awareness.”
He noted that the app proves its efficacy in a situation where you may be standing in line with a friend and with other people for, say, 10 or 15 minutes. If you tested positive after that event, you may be able to recall in a standard contact tracing system process that you were on a long line with a friend. You can certainly tell your friend that you tested positive, but you have no way of notifying the other people.
But if you have the app, and the other people on the line have the app, you would be able to send alerts to the people notifying them you’ve tested positive.
But the privacy lawyer and technologist from the Urban Justice Center and the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, Albert Fox Cahn, pointed out why he believes exposure notification apps are problematic.
For starters, he thinks there is a big distinction to be made between contact tracing apps and existing public health measures that have been around for decades like standard contact tracing systems.
“Those are the systems that we’ve really invested here in New York, and we at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project are quite concerned that this app is both a distraction from those evidence-based measures and that it is unable to live up to the promises of efficacy and privacy that have been promised,” said Fox Cahn.
Dr. Long was quick to note that the adoption of the app doesn’t change or supplant the work of the 4,000 tracers.
“Everything that we’re doing, none of that changes with the app, not a single thing, we’re doing all the contact tracing that we’ve done since June that has driven down the number of new cases everyday by two-thirds in New York City, kept us there for four months. The app will not replace anything we’ve done,” said Long.
The more important issue from Fox Cahn and his group’s perspective, however, is that a lot of the communities that have been hard hit by COVID-19 do not have access to the latest generation of smartphones that are required to run the app’s software.
“[Based on] modeling from Oxford University, you need about 60 percent of the community opting into this sort of system for it to be effective, and yet we know that about half of senior citizens don’t have access to any smartphone, let alone the latest generation smartphone that is able to run this sort of software,” noted Fox Cahn.
And he also took issue with the fact that there is no legal protection against having contact tracing system data possibly being handed over to the police and immigration officials. The New York State Legislature passed legislation this past summer to protect the privacy of the data, but Governor Andrew Cuomo has yet to sign it.
“Today, there simply is no protection against that information being misused,” said Fox Cahn.