Future Tense

How Much Should Protesters Worry About Contact Tracing?

A group of protesters holding signs, including one with an image of George Floyd's face
Protesters outside the 5th Police Precinct in Minneapolis on Saturday. Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

This article is part of Privacy in the Pandemic, a Future Tense series.

Since the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe, contact tracing has become a household term. Public health officials are using human contact tracers to control COVID-19, while companies and governments have also created digital contact tracing tools. All of these efforts have prompted discussions among privacy experts about how to keep individuals’ data secure. Over the weekend, a law enforcement official used the term contact tracing to describe police surveillance, stoking a new wave of privacy concerns—and concerns from public health experts that the public will lose trust in one of our most effective tools to control COVID-19.

As protesters took to the streets of Minneapolis after the killing of George Floyd, local police and the Minnesota State Patrol arrested dozens of people Friday night and early Saturday morning. In a press conference the next morning, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said that every person they arrested on Friday night was from out of state — which he later said was actually based on inaccurate information. (“Outside agitators” have a long-standing history as scapegoats for political action.)

Next, Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington explained that the state had begun looking into the backgrounds of the people arrested. “We’ve begun doing—almost very similar to our COVID [work]—it’s contact tracing.” He went on to describe what “contact tracing” looks like here: Essentially, Minnesota authorities are trying to find out whether people they’ve arrested are affiliated with organized criminal groups—Harrington specifically named white supremacists as a possible example. “Who are they associated with? What platforms are they advocating for? We have seen things like white supremacist organizers who have posted things on platforms about coming to Minnesota,” Harrington said. “We’re building that information network, building that intel effort, so we can link these folks together, figure out the organizations that have created this, and then understand how do we go after them legally.”

Later that day, tech website BGR ran a piece about the press conference with the headline: “Minnesota is now using contact tracing to track protestors, as demonstrations escalate.” In the piece, the writer mentions that Minneapolis officials are using “a familiar tool” called contact tracing—“people have been hearing about it frequently in recent weeks as an important component of a comprehensive coronavirus pandemic response,” and that this “speaks to privacy concerns around contact-tracing in general.” The piece has been shared widely on Twitter, and as a popular Twitter Moment that echoes Harrington’s language. Others on Twitter used Harrington’s statements to ring the alarm bells about the privacy issues in contact tracing.

But despite Harrington’s comparison to COVID-19 contact tracing, what he described sounds less like a public health contact tracer’s job and more like, well, good old-fashioned police work. “Law enforcement strategies, where they are trying to track people down that are concerning to them, that is not contact tracing,” says David C. Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, a public health organization that has trained and deployed COVID-19 contact tracers around the country.

For one, public health contact tracers must follow strict laws and regulations around collecting and keeping personal information. All info given to contact tracers is confidential; they might ask a person who’s tested positive for COVID-19 about whom they’ve seen lately or where they’ve been, but that’s in service of alerting people who may have been exposed to COVID-19—not so they can surveil individuals. When telling people they were potentially exposed, contact tracers can’t reveal who that link might be, and there are also protocols for storing data—public health officials must comply with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act standards, and both physical and electronic records are kept under lock and key. “The need for confidentiality is obvious,” says Harvey. “If that info is not protected, we won’t have people come forward who need to access services. Building trust is at the core of why these laws and regulations exist.” These standards show the efforts of public health officials to protect people’s privacy, but it’s worth noting that this data is reported to state and federal public health databases, which are not impenetrable or incorruptible. It is, however, very different from what Harrington described: directly digging into people’s networks and online activity.

When I reached out to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety for comment, director of communications Bruce Gordon confirmed that Harrington “is talking about typical criminal investigat[iv]e work, not a new technology or strategy. He borrowed a term from the COVID-19 world.” That borrowing could be “very damaging,” Harvey says. “Managing demonstrators from a law enforcement perspective is not public health contact tracing, and using those words really interferes with our ability to build trust with communities who are in real need of services.”

In particular Harvey says he’s concerned about the ability to reach communities of color who may already mistrust government and surveillance—and for good reason. “The U.S. has a long history of systemic racism in public health—specifically within STD [work], we have worked for decades to overcome the racist legacy of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments,” he told me. To address that, public health officials are hiring contact tracers from the communities they’re trying to reach, in hopes of making people more likely to get tested and talk with contact tracers, and making sure contact tracers are trained in cultural competence and confidentiality. But conflation of COVID-19 contact tracing with police surveillance of protesters could add a new layer of mistrust and misunderstanding.

The U.S. is already struggling to control COVID-19—especially in black and brown communities—and contact tracing is among the best tools public health officials have to mitigate its spread. If fewer people are willing to talk with contact tracers—or don’t trust them enough to be honest about their recent activities—that could make COVID-19 even harder to control. “We’re already facing huge odds with trying to serve people,” says Harvey. “I call upon Mr. Harrington to recant his statements and not confuse law enforcement with public health contact tracing, because we have a pandemic to end.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.