The United States missed the window of opportunity on COVID-19 contact tracing - or did we? Several tech companies, including mammoth Google, in a rare partnership with Apple, are launching COVID-19 contact tracing software programs to capture private health information and location data on billions of people worldwide to flatten the novel coronavirus curve, but potentially in violation of U.S. federal and state privacy laws including HIPAA. 

Google and Apple say the technology is necessary to save lives, and are installing their software starting next month. 

But the technology is already of serious concern to U.S. lawmakers and civil libertarians who view it as both over- and under-inclusive. Here in the U.S. we have a long history of protecting individual health information. But a big exception is public safety, either when information is sought by law-enforcement, official reporting is required to health departments, and when necessary to protect the health and safety of others. 

Affecting approximately 3 billion iPhones, and using Bluetooth, the Google-Apple platform will see user location data worldwide exchanged automatically between iPhones that come into proximity with one another enough to indicate potential opportunity to spread infection between users. If one user tests positive for the novel coronavirus, the database will alert the other iPhone(s) and the health department to track down the other user(s) and perform testing. 

The lives saved through such methods will exclude lower income populations that can not afford iPhones, populations already among those hardest hit by COVID-19.

Google and its parent company Alphabet are already collecting location data. So is Apple. 

In answer to privacy concerns, they claim their contact tracing program is better than those currently in operation in countries like China and Singapore. Apple and Google say they will not use the data themselves, they will only pass it on to users, and to local, state and federal governments. They also claim they will shut it off after the pandemic is over, though it is unclear how that milestone may be marked. They further claim users will have the choice whether to opt-in to disclose they were infected, or to receive notifications. But the software surveillance the Apple-Google partnership is currently building will collect the data, will have iPhones communicating with one another, and will allow authorities to have user private health information, even without the user’s knowledge or action, let alone their consent. It will be up to governments what to do with the information and how to set its parameters.

As with many other civil rights in these times of crisis and states of emergency, health privacy and security may not be viewed as it once was, and may never fully recover.