New Orleans residents were shocked last week when Mayor LaToya Cantrell revealed that the city would request businesses to keep a record of every customer entering their establishments. Civil rights groups, such as ACLU of Louisiana, raised concerns, saying the program must be “voluntary, transparent and respectful to people’s privacy rights.” It’s no surprise that the outrage this policy generated led Mayor Cantrell to back off this policy, and instead, follow the state’s lead.
But the state’s contact tracing program comes with its own set of privacy concerns. The state will hire 70 “contact tracers” who will be in charge of interviewing COVID-19 patients and communicating with others who have come in contact with the patients. This microlevel data collection means that the government is keeping a log of citizen interactions. You don’t have to be paranoid about privacy to find this practice concerning.
Fortunately, as has been the case throughout our country’s history, the private sector is providing alternative solutions to big government.
Apple and Google are working together to test Bluetooth tracking technology to allow for contact tracing without hiring human tracers. This app would be voluntarily installed on users’ phones and track where users are going locally. If a user notes that they contracted COVID-19, the app would then anonymously notify others who had been in the same location as the sick person, while still protecting the sick person’s privacy. Some of this data could be shared with governments, but it would have strong protections. In fact, European countries like France have complained about the levels of privacy protection provided by the app.
Using an app like this rather than putting the burden on small businesses or hiring human tracers has many benefits. Foremost, it’s completely voluntarily, and private companies dealing with the data grants important safeguards to privacy for citizens. It also moves the hard work from untrained government employees to companies that excel at using this kind of technology.
Technology companies have already shown the American people they can provide valuable data during this situation, while also protecting our privacy. Governors across the nation, including Gov. John Bel Edwards, have recently taken to reporting their states’ social distancing grades. However, the information shared with these governments didn’t include specifics on an individuals’ data, thus making it impossible for them to track any one person’s movements.
But even these technical solutions, while far less troubling than what’s been proposed in New Orleans or by the state, are not without risks. That’s why protections from government access of this private data is so important. Governments have proven, particularly in times of crisis, that they can’t be trusted to protect our privacy.
Utah has led the way in addressing privacy with respect to government by passing first-of-its-kind privacy legislation. Utah law now requires law enforcement to get a warrant to obtain certain electronic information. It also requires notification, ensuring a person is properly informed when electronic information is requested. Having this law in Louisiana would all but prevent the state and local governments from tracking people’s movements.
Unfortunately, countries like China have demonstrated all too well what happens when government isn’t restrained in accessing its citizens’ data.
New Orleans was right to reconsider its blunt instrument, and Louisiana should keep the public’s reaction in mind when considering future mandates. The private sector has alternatives that can both be more effective and more protective of privacy. Louisiana legislators should also take a hard look at following Utah’s example by protecting their citizens’ privacy from government. Our right to privacy doesn’t disappear during a pandemic.
Eric Peterson is the Director of the Pelican Center for Technology and Innovation.