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Coronavirus Update: Privacy Concerns Raised Over Potential Voluntary 'Contact Tracing' App

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Governments and health authorities are working on ways to get society back up and running safely.

One option: tech companies are creating new measures to track your location to help control the spread of COVID-19. But as CBS2's Natalie Duddridge reported Wednesday, concern is growing over privacy.

We carry them with us wherever we go, our smartphones. Now, they could be used to alert you if you're near someone who has coronavirus.


In a rare move, Google and Apple teamed up and are in a race against other tech giants such as Facebook to create tools that would give alerts when you come near someone who has flagged themselves with the virus, tech expert Nick Wolny said.

"These companies are designing, in a sense, apps that you're going to be able to opt into and indicate your COVID-19 status. Then what will happen is a form of virtual contact tracing will take place where your phone will be able to identify other phones that have certain IDs of users who have self identified as positive," Wolny said.

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It could look something like this:

Tectonix GEO, a company that helps visualize data, teamed up with tech company X-Mode Social and created a visualization. They analyzed mobile devices that were active at a Fort Lauderdale, Fla. beach during spring break and showed where the devices went next.

Wolny said similar technology could be available as early as mid-May, but it's voluntary, and people would have to join for it to work.

"For it to be maximally effective you'd want as many people opting in as possible. There really hasn't been a sufficient answer from Apple or Google in terms of a certain amount of compliance that needs to happen," Wolny said.

CORONAVIRUS: NY Health Dept. | NY Call 1-(888)-364-3065 | NYC Health Dept. | NYC Call 311, Text COVID to 692692 | NJ COVID-19 Info Hub | NJ Call 1-(800)-222-1222 or 211, Text NJCOVID to 898211 | CT Health Dept. | CT Call 211 | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Experts say your location information is already widely collected, like from the maps on your phone. The difference with contact tracing is, until now, sharing health data publicly has been mostly off limits.

"Medical information is generally protected under HIPPA rules," said Ian Marlow, CEO of FitechGelb. "As an example, I use Waze, which is owned by Google. Does that mean if I'm driving in the car it's actually going to pop up that the car next to me someone tested positive?"

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While the hope is virtual tracking would help contain future flare-ups as society begins to open back up, civil rights lawyer Sanford Rubenstein said there are serious social implications.

"Big Brother is watching you. We have a right to privacy that has to be maintained while balancing the need to help public health," Rubenstein said.

So far, President Donald Trump has not said whether the government will consider using it, but has said he will take a strong look at it.

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