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Could Coronavirus Test State's Commitment to Privacy?

This report from CalMatters poses the question, "With contact tracing apps in the works, how much personal data are you willing to trade away for a return to life as it was before the pandemic?"

The following report is excerpted from a longer story by CalMatters.

You’re racking your brain. It’s a few months from now and though the state has eased up on its shelter-in-place order, social distancing is still the norm. And you’ve been so careful. No parties, no travel, constant handwashing.

And yet, your phone pings with the following notification: “You have been possibly exposed to someone who you have recently been in contact with, and who has subsequently self-reported as having the virus.”

Where did the offending pathogen come from? Was it that ill-advised hug of a friend? Did that grocery store cashier cough into his hand before handing you your receipt? It’s impossible to know, but the app seems so confident.

In this way and in so many others, your phone knows more about you than you do. 

The example is fictional for now, but hardly far-fetched. Google and Apple already have a contagion tracking system in the works. That means Californians may soon be turning to their smartphones and other devices to help them navigate the era of novel coronavirus (COVID-19). When they do, they’ll be confronted with a new set of old questions: How much data are we prepared to give away? Who will have access and how will they use it? And how much of our privacy are we willing to trade for a return to life as it was before the pandemic?

“We have been provided all kinds of platforms and apps in the space of tracing,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week in one of his daily COVID-19 briefings. He added that a team of technical advisers including Todd Park, the Obama administration’s chief technology officer, would soon develop an apps recommendation.

California is in a long-term love-hate relationship with privacy. This is the home of Silicon Valley, birthplace of the modern data-harvesting economy, where multibillion-dollar corporations deployed business models based on vacuuming up, packaging and selling your every like, share and purchase. 

But despite — or maybe because of — that distinction, the state also two years ago passed the strictest, most comprehensive consumer privacy law in the country, which the state Attorney General’s Office is to start enforcing this summer. Privacy proponents have gathered signatures to put an even stronger initiative on the November ballot. 

Now the coronavirus pandemic is generating calls for an unprecedented expansion of the state’s public health surveillance system. Experts have urged governments to hold off on lifting social distancing decrees until they’ve built up the capacity to monitor, track down and isolate new infections. How California takes privacy into account in the process is profoundly important, said UC Berkeley bioethicist Jodi Halpern. 

“California is not only a leader in the U.S., it’s a leader in the world on privacy,” she said. “It will be the model.”

To read the full story, go to CalMatters.


CalMatters is a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.