MORGAN COUNTY, Ala. – The State of Alabama has partnered with UAB and tech giants Apple and Google to develop a contact tracing app to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
Many states across the country are following suit, but some technology experts fear downloading these apps could become mandatory.
Where should a line be drawn in the sand?
Health experts agree, contact tracing is an important part of fighting the spread of COVID-19. Alabama’s contact tracing app would work with Bluetooth to notify users if they have been in the proximity of a person who has tested positive for COVID-19.
“I don’t think we want to have these apps become passports to life,” said Gregory Nojiem, Director of Freedom Security and Technology project at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, DC.
Nojiem says requiring people to download a contact tracing app in order to obtain employment, attend events, or gain access to venues would be crossing a line.
“A stadium owner could say, ‘Hey if you want to come into the game you have to download this app,'” he said. “The app becomes, the app use is no longer voluntary in my point of view.”
Alabama Health Officer Scott Harris says he doesn’t want to see that happen.
“I can certainly understand people having concerns about it being forced on people. It absolutely should not be something that is required of the public. In public health we would never require anyone to do that or attempt to require anyone to do that,” Harris said.
Nojiem says it can be hard for any health department to control this activity. He says with no federal guidelines, it’s up to individual states to create protections.
“And so far they’re not stepping up to the plate,” said Nojiem.
But Alabama lawmakers have contact tracing on their radar. Senator Arthur Orr (R- Decatur), is in the process of drafting a bill that would ensure contact tracing stays voluntary and information stays private. It does not specifically mention contact tracing apps, but he says the legislation could offer protections that would extend to them.
“When it comes to information about ourselves, or our movements, who we’re in contact with, who we’re associating with, how much of that are we willing to give up in the interest of public health or public safety,” Orr asked.
Orr doesn’t doesn’t want government agencies to be able to take punitive action if people do not take part in contact tracing.
“What if the person refused and the government said we want to take away your medicaid, we’re going to do this, or do that to you. It should be totally voluntary,” Orr said.
Senator Orr says he applauds the Alabama Department of Public Health’s work to respect privacy and keep contact tracing voluntary during the COVID-19 pandemic. He says his bill would prevent the creation of new regulations or policies that could change how things are handled currently.
“I tip my hat to public health in that they have respected privacy in their regulations and the voluntary nature of contact tracing, but that could all change. The government bureaucracies have changed their rules quite frequently and I want to make sure we get something in the law, that’s on the books and that’s debated properly through the elected representatives to come to what the people want,” he said.