New York City’s Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams released a statement today expressing precaution that the enhanced oversight occuring during COVID-19 to enhance contact tracing should have oversight to ensure citizen’s personal data and privacy is not violated. He said in the press release that “it is vital to ensure that in intent and in impact, protecting the public health without jeopardizing the public’s civil liberties is paramount.” Williams cited the precedent of the U.S. government’s tendency to expand surveillance during times of crises as “imperative to have policies and procedures in place to protect that information prior to the wide-scale implementation of the program.”
Examples of this intrusion on privacy would include the “Special Registration” of Arabs, South Asians, and Muslims after 9/11 and passage of the Patriot Act. Historical precedent also includes the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII showing that in times of crisis, the U.S. government has resorted to extreme measures under the guise of public health that later proved harmful to the affected communities.
Williams sent letters to both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo citing both the “strong public health potential of contact tracing programs and the inherent risks associated with mass collection of private information” as COVID-19 continues to spread. Williams also made a few recommendations as the program continues: any data collected through contact tracing systems should be housed within the state’s Department of Health and the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, that the workforce that serves diverse communities should be equally as diverse, and that Williams himself remain involved throughout all stages of this program including both oversight and implementation.
Williams emphasized that “transparency is key” and the contact tracing program, “if implemented correctly” would have both “great potential to save lives” and “significant implications for setting precedent around privacy protections.”
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