Contact tracing is a public health effort to help stop the spread of disease like the coronavirus outbreak — but now police are looking at it as a model for criminal investigations. That repurposing is raising serious concerns from contact tracers who fear this will make it even harder to convince the public to cooperate with their work.
Contact tracing is a public health practice where workers interview people about their travels and people they’ve been in touch with, to help stop the spread of a disease. It’s been an essential tool during the coronavirus pandemic.
Contact tracing’s biggest hurdle is getting public trust, and at least one police department may exacerbate the problem. After protests erupted in Minneapolis over the death of George Floyd, Minnesota’s public safety commissioner, John Harrington, said in a press conference on May 30 that police were starting to contact trace the demonstrators they’ve arrested.
“It’s contact tracing of who are they associated with, what platforms are they advocating for, and we have seen things like white supremacists who have posted things on platforms about coming to Minnesota,” Harrington said. “We are checking to see, do the folks that we have made arrests on, are they connected to those platforms?”
Cities across the US have broken out into protests that have turned violent with police confrontation. The protests sparked after a Minneapolis officer was recorded pressing his knee on George Floyd’s neck as he died. Officers have arrested hundreds of protesters and claimed that many of them are outside agitators looking to spread chaos, including Minneapolis’s police department.
Searching for evidence on demonstrators and links to a larger network can be essential to a criminal investigation, but it’s not contact tracing, said David Harvey, the executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, which is the arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that represents contact tracers across the country.
Harvey said he’s extremely concerned about police using the public health tracking methods on protesters. Gaining public trust of contact tracing is already difficult during the pandemic, but if it’s tied to police efforts, it’s going to be even harder, Harvey said.
“I am deeply worried about the impact of these wrong-headed comments,” Harvey said. “Anything that interferes with the public health system where we’re trying to promote trust is damaging, particularly when you look at how COVID-19 is impacting communities of color.”
Contact tracing details have been misused by private businesses like a Subway employee in New Zealand using a customers’ personal information to harass her, Newshub reported in May.
Apple and Google’s exposure notification tools are designed to help contact tracing, and the companies both noted that their biggest challenge is getting people to install it because of privacy concerns.
By comparing contact tracing to a police investigation, it raises trust issues for a solution that can help during a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans.
“Any blurring of police work with contact tracing can undermine public health. In prior outbreaks, people who trusted public health authorities were more likely to comply with containment efforts,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a post on Monday.
The Minnesota Public Safety Commission did not respond to a request for comment on its use of contact tracing and how it affects the state’s public health response to COVID-19.
But Harvey said the damage has been done to contact tracers. He noted that trust is a core part of public health and contact tracing, and that there are strict regulations on how information from contact tracing can be used.
“Any insinuation that contact tracing can be used to track down demonstrators shows a profound and dangerous misunderstanding of the trust needed to intervene in a pandemic like coronavirus,” Harvey said.