What a Contact Tracing App Might Look Like Here

If states begin to manage the number of COVID-19 hospital admissions through mitigation and suppression, they will then need to adopt an aggressive and potentially invasive program of contact tracing to immediately squash flare ups.  Singapore and China have used mandatory mobile apps to track the social lives of visitors and those with the disease. In China, the various apps track location; in Singapore, the app uses Bluetooth to track contacts; that is – which phones were near which phones, and when.  The government there insists that location data isn’t tracked and that the app doesn’t access other personally identifiable information about the user.  It may occur to you that Singapore, an authoritarian state, might be misleading their citizens about the way the app works, but the government has smartly made the software and coding open, giving engineers a chance to dissect, improve it, and fortify its security.

Here in America, our sense of privacy is really just that: a sense; an intuition that there are some things on some occasions that no one else should be able to know, even if there is no reason for us to keep those things within the boundaries our mind.  A bundle of conflicting behavior, complicated court rulings and noble-sounding platitudes adds a little heft to the definition.  

We are moving, however, in a direction where we recognize how chaotic and unhelpful our privacy sense is, and how it has been used by corporations to extract profit.  We are developing a meta-sense of privacy that might actually help us decide, person-by-person, that we want to flesh out its meaning in a way that protects genuine human equities.

In Los Angeles, COVID-19 cases are rising, hospital admissions are rising, ICU beds are filling up, and health care workers are anxious.  At the same time, due to the aggressive action by our governor, Gavin Newsom, and our mayor, Eric Garcetti, social distancing has flattened the curve by just enough to give our health care system more time to prepare. We are girded for a fight, but we feel agency; we have collectively worked to reduce suffering.

This is all a preamble to the next phase of a strategy.  And an app that traces contacts is almost certainly the most efficient way to localize infection clusters. So what principles should we base the app’s design and use on?

1.     The app must be built by, and maintained by the state or local health authority. The CDC has not yet built a reservoir of trust. (States can share the code with other states).

2.     The code must be open-source and submit itself for regular penetration testing.

3.     The governor or mayor must openly take responsibility in advance and pledge to be a responsible steward of the data.

4.     In order to work, the city has to encourage citizens to download the app, and it can leverage social pressure to encourage participation.

5.     If the user wants to give the city his or her phone number, that’s fine. If not, the app will create a cryptograph hash of the phone number that is stored centrally and can only be decrypted by the app.

6.     The app should be able to collect location data from cell phone towers, and it should be able to communicate via Bluetooth with other apps.  When users install the app, this would be made explicit.

7.     The local ACLU branch will be invited to assign an attorney to the health care task force; alternatively, law experts from independent universities might perform this function.

8.     The city or state will sign a MOU with the local police department and state police agency ensuring that there are no routine requests for data; the police would require an order to obtain the data.  Local police chiefs would pledge publicly to not use the data.

9.     The data will be purged every 60 days, or sooner, if there is no public health reason to justify 60 days worth of retention.

10.  The public health task force will produce transparency reports every quarter.

What features am I missing?   Would this work?  Should compliance be mandatory?

Let me know what you’re thinking.