Vt. health officials using technology to aid in contact tracing

Published: May. 14, 2020 at 5:50 PM EDT
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Countries across the globe are tracking people through their cellphones to help in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. It's a practice that is sparking debate over the balance between privacy and public health. Calvin Cutler reports on how Vermont is using technology to trace COVID-19 and what it means for you.

Contract tracing is a tried-and-true public health approach to identifying those who may have come into contact with an infected person. In Vermont and other states, officials use SARA Alert, a web-based monitoring tool that allows public health officials to keep tabs on those infected or suspected of being infected with COVID-19 via their phones on a voluntary basis.

"It is a bidirectional information system that allows a lot of connectivity between the Department of Health and the public," said Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine.

South Korea and China also track cellphone data to hunt down the virus, but people there have no choice. Across the globe, contact tracing has renewed the discussion of digital privacy and public health. Legal experts say that since SARA Alert is used by the state, the system has to meet strict criteria under HIPAA, the federal health care privacy law.

"They have to tell people if they're monitoring, how they're monitoring, and how the data is going to be used, and how it will be anonymized," said Jeannette Eicks, a professor at the Vermont Law School's Center for Legal Innovation.

Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan says the state's data tracking passes constitutional muster because people consent to participate in SARA Alert. Any nonconsensual tracking of cellphone data -- for instance by law enforcement agencies -- would need a warrant from a judge.

"Any time the government would track people and gain information outside of the public health strategy it would raise some constitutional questions, But the Vermont Department of Health is doing this with consent," Donovan said.

But Eicks says if private companies like Google and Apple get involved with contact tracing it could become a slippery slope when it comes to privacy because they, for the most part, have free rein over-sharing and selling data. "The government actually has its hands tied in this century a lot more than the commercial entities do," Eicks said.

And as everything from medical appointments to court hearings switch to an online format, Donovan says individuals are faced with new challenges. "The fundamental question is -- has technology outpaced the law? I don't think it has and I think the law will evolve to meet those challenges and will evolve to safeguard people's constitutional rights," he said.

While the global community grapples with balancing privacy and public health, Vermont health officials say they have no immediate plans to pursue a mandatory tracking system. "That's not what goes on in our society, in Vermont, and at this time that's not going to be part of the functionality in how we interact with Vermonters," Levine said.

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