Part 3: Privacy-Preserving Contact Tracing at Scale

As I previously discussed in Part 1 and Part 2, to defeat COVID-19 we’ll need effective contact tracing — but in order to win widespread buy-in for digital tracing, we must also commit to zealously defending users’ privacy rights.

In Part 3, I’ll map out the path to privacy-preserving and effective contact tracing at scale. Watch the third video explainer, then see below for more.

The good news is that this is a solvable problem, and there’s a way to bring Americans on board as we deploy new contact-tracing apps. The bad news is that when it comes to winning the trust of the public, the teams building tracing apps have a lot of room for improvement.

According to a recent survey, 56% of Americans say they don’t trust tech companies to manage and protect tracing data. That’s 13 percentage points less than those who say they’d trust government health agencies or universities with their data.

Winning hearts and minds is going to be an uphill struggle. That’s why Switchbit is calling for a new initiative to develop industry-wide privacy standards — a joint collaboration between tech firms, privacy advocates, health workers, and universities. This would be a foundational step toward genuinely trustworthy contact tracing.

In practice, what does that mean? In addition to developing contact-tracing apps, we must also build digital infrastructure capable of fusing tracing and health data and delivering the actionable insights we need to curb and preempt outbreaks. Crucially, we need to do so in a way that is unimpeachably secure, and that transparently safeguards users’ privacy and data rights.

To achieve this, we need three big things:

#1 Threat Exposure Notification Protocol (TENP)

#2 A commitment to citizen control

#3 A robust privacy standard

#1 Threat Exposure Notification Protocol (TENP)

The Internet couldn’t exist without the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP), which sets the standard for formatting and transmitting messages online. To collect the data needed to derail coronavirus transmission, we need a similar standard for contact tracing: a Threat Exposure Notification Protocol (TENP) that articulates how data can be gathered, stored, communicated, and shared between authorized stakeholders. Google and Apple’s new software kits empower individual applications, but we need a unified TENP to prevent the fragmentation of data across multiple tracing apps, and to allow analysts and health workers to leverage a unified data-stream as they work to thwart future pandemics.

#2 A commitment to citizen control

In developing a TENP, we need to put end-users in the driver’s seat. Only by empowering citizens can we secure the buy-in that’s needed to trace contacts at scale. That means giving users the power to seek out information on their own terms, and to decide precisely how much of their data to hand over along the way. To be effective, any contact-sharing standard will need to have the user’s Right to Be Forgotten baked into its fundamental structure. We’ll also need to ensure that users can give, withhold, or withdraw consent for the use of their data at a granular level, and also veto the use of their data by authoritarian states such as Russia and China. These are foundational issues that need to be addressed as such, and not reinvented from scratch each time a developer sits down to code a tracing app.

#3 A robust privacy standard

Finally, we need to codify a privacy standard that is flexible enough to allow researchers and public health actors to fuse potentially chaotic health, location, and proximity data at scale, but also robust enough to give users reliable control over their data. The more we can ensure privacy, the more willing users will be to share their information, enabling not just basic contact tracing but perhaps also the use of more advanced health data, such as biometric data or medical results, to spur the development of new treatments for COVID-19. The potential is enormous, but only if we can give users an ironclad guarantee that nobody’s taking liberties with their data.

At Switchbit, we’ve taken the first step towards these interconnected goals by launching the Threat Exposure Notification Protocol (TENP), a new standard for sharing data across contact tracing applications, data providers, public health institutions, and policymakers. Essentially, TENP is a framework that lets tech companies incorporate meaningful and verifiable privacy and data security into their tracing systems, and also gives users, regulators, and health professionals reassurance that tracing is being carried out in an effective and secure way.

Of course, TENP is only the first step. By establishing a clear standard for data sharing, we’re enabling the kind of collaboration and innovation that’s needed — but others, from policymakers to tech companies, will now need to step up and make use of these tools. What’s needed is a groundswell of support for these ideas, driven both by users and by tech companies themselves.

These are early days, and we don’t claim to have definitively solved the privacy challenges inherent in contact tracing. But with TENP, we’ve created a connective framework that the tech industry, the healthcare sector, and policymakers can build on to develop more robust tracing tools. Now, we need collaboration and creative thinking to move the ball forward — and to reassure users, in the United States and all over the world, that it’s safe to share their personal data.

There’s still plenty of work left to do, so if you’re interested in helping us figure out how to realize this vision, please get in touch. Defending privacy while building contact tracing systems at scale is a challenge that’s bigger than any one company or organization — but together, it’s a challenge we can overcome. Our ability to defeat COVID-19, and to prevent similar crises in the future, depends on it.

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