Minnesota Official Alarms Privacy Advocates With Contact Tracing Comments

Comments from Minnesota Public Safety commissioner John Harrington comparing law enforcement to contact tracing alerted privacy activists to the dangers of misusing COVID-19 health data.

AccessTimeIconJun 2, 2020 at 10:07 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 1:48 p.m. UTC
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At a press conference Sunday, Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington compared the methods police were using to identify protestors to those used to track COVID-19 cases. 

We’ve “begun analyzing the data of who we have arrested, and begun, actually, doing what you would think as almost pretty similar to our COVID [response]. It’s contact tracing. Who are they associated with? What platforms are they advocating for?” he said. 

The Department of Public Safety works in partnership with local state and federal law enforcement and emergency response agencies.

Public health and privacy experts reacted with alarm, saying that conflating law enforcement and contact tracing could hamper COVID-19 tracing efforts by sowing distrust of the process as protests continue across the U.S.

“You need people to engage with contact tracing to save lives during an epidemic,” said Nigel Smart, a Belgian professor who has been a key figure in pushing Europe towards decentralized contact tracing protocols. He said that from a public policy point of view, the statement was both worrisome and shortsighted.

“Making people think that contact tracing could also be used for political or law enforcement may make people less likely to engage with contact tracing during an epidemic. Which will then lead to unnecessary loss of life.”

This sentiment was echoed by Caitlin Rivers, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, which is closely tracking the spread of COVID-19 across the U.S.

“This is not contact tracing! What is described in the video is police work,” said Rivers in a tweet. “To see the two linked jeopardizes the credibility of public health, which needs community trust to work effectively.”

Protests over police brutality and the death of George Floyd have raged for days in Minneapolis and across the U.S. George Floyd was an African-American man who was killed by police when an officer kneeled on his neck and choked him for more than eight minutes. The incident was caught on video. 

The real danger is that COVID tracing apps in the name of public health will be weaponized against dissidents, which is why we must support decentralized alternatives.

The U.S. does not have an official database for tracking police brutality. But according to the research group Mapping Police Violence, last year alone police killed more than 1,000 people, with black people disproportionately among those killed. 

The concerns over undermining contact tracing efforts are exacerbated when black people are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 in America. 

Contact tracing is the process of ascertaining whom people infected with COVID-19 might have come into contact with during the period in which they were contagious. 

Governments, health experts and privacy advocates have been debating for weeks how invasive privacy-speaking contact tracing tech would need to be. 

Adam Schwartz, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), was alarmed by law enforcement's suggestion that surveillance of protesters, and their beliefs and associations, is similar to contact tracing.

“Public health officials undertaking contact tracing must never share the personal information they collect with police, immigration enforcement agencies or intelligence officials,” said Schwartz. 

“In fact, we need new legislation to guarantee this. Likewise, contact tracing should gather the least possible information, retain it for the shortest possible period of time and use it for nothing except contact tracing.”

Harry Halpin, a technologist and CEO of Nym, a privacy-tech startup, said the technique of contact tracing is the same whether it's detecting coronavirus spread or targetting political protesters in the U.S. supporting Black Lives Matter. But that underscores the need for systems that by design don’t allow information related to COVID-19 to be shared with law enforcement.

“The real danger is that COVID tracing apps in the name of public health will be weaponized against dissidents, which is why we must support decentralized alternatives,” said Halpin. “Overall, if possible always leave your phone at home, even at protests!”


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