Data privacy takes a COVID-19 turn

Jul 30, 2020
Written by Mark Johnson, Senior Vice President of Policy and Government Affairs

Many of the privacy questions regarding the use of technology for COVID-19 contact tracing emerged earlier this week during a joint remote meeting of the state Senate Environment, Energy and Technology and Health Care Committees.

It’s likely that a bill to protect privacy in contact tracing will be introduced when the Legislature expects to meet again early next year.

During the presentations of several guest speakers, questions that arose included:

  • What data should be collected? How will it be used? How will individuals know their data is protected? Will there be an app developed?
  • Should control of data be centralized or de-centralized? There are pluses and minuses to both approaches. Should data collected be by individual location or more general proximity or both?
  • Speakers emphasized that data collection must be voluntary from individuals. Best practices were discussed including the need to be transparent about retention times, collection purposes and data sharing for secondary uses.

About a dozen Senators participated at the workshop chaired by Senator Reuven Carlyle (36-D Seattle) and Health Care Chairwoman Senator Annette Cleveland (49-D Vancouver).

Apple and Google have been working on the issue for possible deployment on a smart phone. Several states and countries are trying the contact tracing programs.

One speaker, Justin Brookman, Director of Privacy and Technology Policy for Consumer Reports, said a recent survey showed 7 out of 10 Americans don’t want to use an app with concerns over secondary use, government abuse, immigration and law enforcement, insurance pricing, advertising and data breaches. He said Congress and the states of California and New York were considering legislation related to this topic.

Washington State Privacy Officer Katy Ruckle expressed caution on clearly identifying and addressing security issues, individual participation, data minimization, and transparency. She reminded folks that federal HIPAA laws do not cover all protected health information.

Dr. Kathy Lofy, the State Health Officer, explained that contact tracing has been used for decades to track illnesses such as HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis.  Such testing does not collect Social Security numbers, drivers’ license numbers, biometrics, immigration status, and financial information, she said.

The Department of Health currently uses the Washington Disease Reporting System. Its goal is to reach individuals within 24 hours of a reported infection and 48 hours with any contacts they have had. DOH has 304 staff working on the project. In cooperation with UW and Microsoft, state health officials are developing a contact tracing app that currently is going through testing.