Contact Tracing: Cautious Optimism in Public Health

Available for Interviews: Phil Crowley.

Philip P. Crowley, is a dedicated attorney who has been handling legal matters for pharmaceutical, biomedical, medical devices, information technology and other technology companies for over 30 years. He has also spent nearly 25 years on the board of trustees of the Stevens Institute of Technology, with substantial involvement in the oversight of academic innovation and entrepreneurship.


What Phil Crowley Can Say in an Interview 
on the Legalities and Inplications for CT:

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the topic of contact tracing has come center stage. Contact tracing can allow us to track positive cases of viruses such as COVID-19 in hope of slowing the spread of the disease. Recently, Apple and Google partnered on COVID-19 contact tracing technology. As world governments and health authorities work hard to combat COVID-19 both in terms of health and the economy, technology companies are trying to also help in creating software that could help control the spread of the virus and save lives. This could be accomplished by using contact tracing as a tool whereby data would be accessible to governments and health agencies. The Use of CT technology is surely promising, though many health, social, and legal issues still need to be explored. 

What Is Contact Tracing?

Contact tracing is a multi-step process of (1) identifying those infected with a pathogen, (2) finding out their movements while they were infected, (3) learning the places they have visited and the people with whom they may have come into contact, and (4) alerting those potential contacts of the need to be tested to determine whether they have been infected. Steps after the contact tracing process can include quarantine of those contacts for a period to determine whether they develop symptoms or are assumed to be uninfected or recovered. This can prevent further transmission of the disease. This is a primary and generally accepted method to isolate those who harbor the infection and to prevent others from contracting it.

How Contact Tracing Works

So, how does CT work (i.e., what Americans need to do to comply with CT testing.)? Once an infected person has been identified, public health officials try to identify people with whom he or she had contact and communicate with them. The “contacts” are alerted that they may have been infected. The officials recommend that they self-isolate until it can be determined whether they are infected. This would be determined if they develop symptoms of the disease at issue or have no symptoms—and are assumed to be uninfected or recovered. The person without symptoms would then wait for a period that public health officials assume that he or she would not infect others, even if the person had had the infection him- or herself. 

Rights and Privacy Risks
at Play for Americans

Today, the primary privacy risks involve the protection of personally identified information. We have all heard about the hacking of databases and theft of sensitive data. It applies to databases maintained by public health authorities as well. But the more interesting question is what happens when “IoT”—the Internet of Things—begins to incorporate all that health and fitness data on the personal fitness/wellness apps on your smartphone or wrist? What if we had a government-run “single payer” system that required you—or rewarded you—for giving the insurer access to that data? It could make contact tracing faster and easier—but how comfortable would you be having your personal data in some large database with unknown cybersecurity protections? Recall that intelligence agencies believe that the Chinese government “hacked” a U.S. government database with the personal information of thousands of people (maybe more). Would you be comfortable with the assurance—“We’re from the government and we’re here to help. You can trust us”? Is this another chapter in the takeover by “Big Brother?” There are many questions that need to be explored and vetted. Namely, Can Apple & Google mandate that people use the app? Apple & Google have announced the feature as “opt in.” Can’t be mandated under current US law, but that leaves open what would happen in other countries.

other concerns Surrounding
Contact Tracking

            Quality control. Will it work? if it does, it could provide tremendous public health benefits—perhaps saving countless lives. But are the tradeoffs worth the costs?

            Privacy. How can users be certain their information won’t be used inappropriately?

            Security. With the skill of hackers, robust protection schemes will be needed and updated regularly. What will be the remedies for breach?

            Standards. Who will set the standards for data protection? Do we need Federal legislation to cover issues nationwide?

            Emergency powers. In this or a future pandemic, could the Federal, State or local government mandate use of the app? What might that look like? 

            Future implications. What effect would it have on society? Would it exacerbate the “digital divide” between haves and have nots? What would happen if you couldn’t leave the house without an “approved, validated” app?

Postscript on Contact Tracing

For now, it’s an important part of the armamentarium of public health practice. It can help slow the spread of deadly diseases. But the road to “greater efficiency” in the digital age needs to be leavened with a measure of caution. People need to ask pointed questions about what security assurances should be givenand more importantly, actual performance delivered—to protect this precious information.


Interviews: Phil Crowley.

Philip P. Crowley is an attorney for over 30 years who is passionate about helping grow technology companies seize opportunities and avoid expensive legal mistakes as they make ideas come to fruition. Mr. Crowley has also spent nearly 25 years on the board of trustees of the Stevens Institute of Technology, with substantial involvement in the oversight of academic innovation and entrepreneurship. He is the Managing Partner at the Law Office of Philip P. Crowley, LLC. Visit Phil Crowley on the web at


Jo Allison
Managing Editor
Director of Public Relations
Success in Media, Inc.

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