Contact tracing promises to curb the spread of COVID-19 in New York–if privacy fears can be overcome

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Credit: Brittainy Newman/The New York Times

Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers will be asked to disclose personal information this month as part of the city’s herculean Covid-19 tracing effort — but suspicions over how the government will use that information are threatening the city’s best chance to crawl out of its coronavirus lockdown.

Contact tracing requires handing over intimate personal data — including home addresses, names of friends and relations — to strangers, many of whom were only recently trained and hired to collect the information. The city expects to have 3,700 contact tracers mobilized this month, and as many as 10,000 when the effort reaches its capacity.

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But in this majority-minority city, government distrust was already exacerbated due to the Trump administration’s hard-line stance against immigrants. After a week of chaotic protests against the police following the killing of George Floyd, suspicion between residents and government authorities has only grown, community leaders say.

“They are reinventing the wheel,” said Allie Bohm, policy counsel for New York Civil Liberties Union. “It’s not even that they haven’t explained how data are going to be protected. They haven’t thought through the privacy regime and what privacy protections we should have in place, and that’s scarier.”

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