Contact tracers concerned police tracking protesters will hurt COVID-19 aid

Police in Minnesota say they've started "contact-tracing" demonstrators. That's created a trust problem for medical workers in the pandemic.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
3 min read

Protesters demonstrate in New York's Times Square on Monday against George Floyd's killing and police brutality. 

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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 gaining public trust, and at least one police department may exacerbate the problem. After protests erupted in Minneapolis over George Floyd's killing, Minnesota's public safety commissioner, John Harrington, said in a press conference Sunday 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?"

Some demonstrations across the US have turned violent after confrontations between police and protesters. The protests were sparked after a video was shared of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25 pressing his knee on Floyd's neck for nearly 9 minutes as Floyd repeatedly says "I can't breathe." Floyd, who was 46, died. Four officers were later fired, including Derek Chauvin, who's been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

Minneapolis' police department is among those that have claimed that many of the arrested protesters are outside agitators looking to spread chaos. 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 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." 

Watch this: Contact tracing explained: How apps can slow the coronavirus

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 the apps 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 people in the US. 

"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

Bruce Gordon, director of communications for the Minnesota Public Safety Commission, said that the department wasn't working on any new technology or methods for tracking protesters. It's unclear why he used the "contact tracing" terminology, and Gordon said he hasn't seen any effects on the state's public health efforts. 

"He is talking about typical criminal investigate work, not a new technology or strategy," Gordon said. "He borrowed a term from the COVID-19 world."

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.