Members of the House Committee on Financial Services and witnesses at a July 8 hearing weighed the public health benefits of digital contact tracing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 against the data privacy concerns of access to personal information.

Chairman of the Task Force on Artificial Intelligence Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., said that full access to personal, private data would an “epidemiologist’s dream” as it would make it easier to contain the spread of the virus, but it infringes on core American rights. Contact tracing, he added, has the potential to capture the benefits of data access while protecting individual privacy.

“Contact tracing apps, together with backend AI that combines the raw data from cell phone tracking in various forms with other data sources, including financial, that COVID-positive patients might opt in to on a voluntary basis has the potential to capture some of the health and economic benefits of much more intrusive monitoring while preserving acceptable levels of privacy,” Foster explained as a possible solution.

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Through digital contact tracing, individuals let an organization track information like location data to follow how COVID-19 spreads. With enough data, AI and machine learning programs could also be trained to predict future virus hotspots. Although, Co-Founder of the CVKey Project Brian McClendon cautioned, the mass amounts of past data necessary to build that type of algorithm aren’t currently available.

Before developing a program that collects and analyzes that much data, McClendon said that a Federal guidance on how organizations should handle the private health data is necessary to getting Americans on board.

“Privacy is critical to marketing these apps to Americans because they’re very worried about what these apps could do and we need to get an install base for these apps,” he said. The “install base” is important to an app’s success because a certain percent of the population must engage with contact tracing apps for them to be effective.

Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., ranking member of the task force, also called for foundational data privacy legislation to protect individual rights before implementing any widespread contact tracing measures.

“Given that privacy will be paramount,” he said, “a major limiting factor in our ability to implement nationwide digital contact tracing is that we do not have a Federal consumer data privacy law nor do we have a national data security and breach notification.”

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Katie Malone
Katie Malone
Katie Malone is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.