Solving privacy to realize rapid contact tracing
In these times of the COVID-19 pandemic, our societies are faced with making many unprecedented decisions, for which we have little data and often lack the tools to manage. In such situations we do our best to take meaningful steps while managing risks. The US has done tremendous work in analyzing and proposing next steps to resume economic and social activity while balancing the risks of a virus that we still have a lot to learn about. We have now developed a clear sense of the roadmap to resume activities, the triggers for re-opening and the tools we need in place to enable and sustain the resumption of activities.
In our own neck of the woods, here in Massachusetts, we are carefully monitoring the situation and reviewing the triggers. In the current absence of clinical tools such as vaccines, the fundamental guidance for reopening is based on three things: 1. high capacity and rapid turnaround testing; 2. proactive containment such as heavily protecting first responders, and social distancing and face-coverings for broader society, and; 3. reactive containment via contact tracing. States are moving to develop higher testing capacity and there are many efforts underway to develop faster tests. Social distancing and face-coverings are already in place but will be eased in a phased manner to resume activities.
But we face bigger challenges when it comes to active containment using contact tracing. Firstly, manual contact tracing is labor-intensive and costly. Secondly, manual contact tracing is slow, specifically to mitigate the infectiousness of the COVID-19 virus that spreads very fast from infected yet asymptomatic people. Thirdly, participation in contact tracing programs is severely hampered by privacy concerns, particularly in the US. People are wary of sharing personal data, particularly related to health, with strangers. There are concerns about having to share too much information, as well as reasonable concerns about the dangers of "Big Brother" risks.
The application of software technology can address these concerns by eliminating significant amounts of manual labor and significantly speeding up the process of detecting at-risk individuals. But most importantly it can encourage people to participate in contact tracing by directly solving their privacy concerns. By returning control of their data back to individuals, technology can allow them to decide who they share their data with and for how long. Individuals can directly answer for themselves questions such as, If I test positive for COVID-19, who is notified about that? Can I restrict the number of people who learn about my identity? If I am determined to be at-risk based on contact tracing, can I decide who else to share that data with? How can I choose (or not) to participate in additional downstream contact tracing starting from me? These are all key underlying privacy concerns that when addressed directly can tremendously help deliver the benefits of contact tracing.
Tracelinks directly addresses these issues to provide an automated contact tracing solution that allows individuals to control the sharing of their personal data thereby enabling an organization, that is trusted by the individual (e.g. a business that is their employer), to implement contact tracing in their own populations. But Tracelinks goes one step further and also allows organizations to collaborate if they can benefit from doing so, and exchange anonymized information for an individual only if that individual provides and maintains their consent to each organization to do so.
Addressing privacy necessarily means limiting the recipients of information. Contact tracing work best when the broadest sets of data can be shared. Now more than ever, as we look to preserve both lives and livelihoods, we urgently need the means to maximize the effectiveness of contact tracing while respecting the privacy rights of individuals.
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