What privacy rights do Americans have during contact tracing?

By  | 

(CBS/WVLT) -- Many countries, the United States included, have turned to contact tracing as a method of stopping the spread of COVID-19; however, the practice has raised concerns about privacy.

CBS News investigated the rights Americans have as the country navigates the pandemic and works with health officials to slow coronavirus.

"Right now we're trying to do three things and it's really hard to do all three at the same time," said CBSN legal contributor Keir Dougall. "Protect our health, our lives and our jobs, protect our social ability to gather and protect our privacy."

Dougall said there is precedence on potential privacy violations. In 1905, the Supreme Court ruled that the government can take steps to protect public health that might otherwise infringe upon the Bill of Rights.

"Now those steps have to be reasonable, they can't be pretextual, they can't be an effort to accomplish something beyond what is reasonable to address the health issue, but those are the basic rules of the road now," he added.

Dougall added that concerns about information misuse are valid. "If our health officials have an evidence, science-based reasonable need to gather information, the government is going to have a right to get it. The question becomes one more of practicalities, and how do you get it," he said.

"The big concern with gathering all this information, and privacy advocates are right to be worried about this, is that it can be used to harass, it can be used to intimidate, it can chill people's political activity. It can end up in the wrong hands if there's a data breach," Dougall added.

CBS reported that, beyond those concerns, there are issues with employers seeking information about their employees. One example is Price Waterhouse Cooper, which is using a contact tracing application in its Shanghai office's reopening.

"Of course an employer has a right to protect the workplace," Dougall said. "They're going to want to make sure it's safe, they have an obligation to make sure it's safe. As long as it's not on a discriminatory basis and they're gathering information in an evenhanded way, they should be able to collect basic health information."

If employees are worried about how their company is treating their data, Dougall said that there are some options.

"If you feel they're asking too intrusive questions, talk to your employer. Talk to your union representative. If there's a worker's rights or advocacy group, talk to them and you can always talk to a lawyer. Ultimately these are voluntary relationships and you can potentially — you can refuse to give the information — and the employer will have to make a decision whether to keep you on as an employee."

Copyright 2020 WVLT News via CBS. All rights reserved.