Privacy Amid a Pandemic: Why It Matters for Contact Tracing

The ongoing battle against COVID-19 has brought concerns about privacy to the forefront. Where it was once possible to share sensitive materials and data via offline methods, organizations now must adapt to digital workflows—such as 100% online loan applications and distance learning initiatives—where data privacy is critical to success and compliance.

There’s no denying that these are strange times we are living in and it’s clear that the American public is eager to resume “normal” life. But, with some states still very reluctant to reopen and contact tracing a hot topic worldwide, it’s also clear that there is still significant uneasiness as it relates to both public health and privacy.  As we’ve shared before, effectively curbing this pandemic relies on sharing data, but the challenge lies in maintaining the privacy of individuals’ data as it is shared. 

Individuals’ Perception of Privacy Amid a Pandemic

According to a June, 2019 Pew survey, 70% of Americans felt that their personal information was less secure than it was five years earlier. Now, with many individuals working remotely and spending more time online, data privacy and security are even more at risk.  

Already rising concerns about privacy, coupled with the need for contact tracing to help stop the spread of COVID-19, secure privacy’s position as a top concern amid this pandemic. After Google and Apple announced they would make operating system updates to allow for contact tracing apps to work in the background, the privacy debate instantly heated up, fueled by fears that a contact tracing app might become a form of government surveillance. In fact, nearly half of Americans believe that it would be unacceptable for the government to deploy this type of tool. 

Why Privacy Matters for Contact Tracing

According to the CDC, “contact tracing, a core disease control measure employed by local and state health department personnel for decades, is a key strategy for preventing further spread of COVID-19” and there are certain core principles that must always be followed. One of those core principles is protecting patient privacy. However, Americans and individuals worldwide are rightfully concerned about the true privacy of their personal data should they participate in contact tracing. 

The most recent installment of the Axios-Ipsos Coronovirus Index indicates that, at best, only half of Americans would participate in contact tracing if established by the CDC and public health officials. That number falls quickly to 35% or fewer if the contact tracing system were to be established by cell phone and internet providers, tech companies, or the federal government. These numbers highlight a rampant concern for the privacy of personal health information and mistrust over how that data could be used.

Data Privacy Doesn’t Have to Be a Trade-Off

Data privacy must be foundational to an effective contact tracing solution. Success depends on giving individuals verifiable control over their data so that they are willing to contribute their private information. We recently launched a poll on LinkedIn to informally investigate this a little bit further. So far, the results indicate that a vast majority of individuals are more likely to use a contact tracing app if they are able to revoke access to their personal information at any given time. 

Fortunately, organizations do have solutions readily available to them that can add the necessary layers of privacy to a contact tracing app. The Virtru Trusted Data Platform (TDP) ensures data is used only for its intended purpose and includes strong controls that give individuals the power to share, approve, and revoke access to their sensitive information at any time.

Assuring verifiable control builds trust that, in turn, allows healthcare providers, government officials, and others to quickly and accurately generate new and better insights from data, leading to more effective action plans that will allow us to reopen our economy sooner, without sacrificing privacy.

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