COVID Contact Tracing Technology: How Do We Get it Right?

Cybersecurity experts discuss the intersection between privacy and public health.

BU Experts
6 min readJun 23, 2020


By Katherine Gianni

Photo by United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, governments, healthcare facilities and workplaces alike are more closely examining different technologies, namely contact tracing apps, to help monitor the spread of the virus in an effort to prevent an uptick in new covid cases, and to restore a sense of normalcy within daily life. While most of these apps are still in the development stages, many people have begun to wonder what exactly the tech will be able to retrieve from their smartphones. Is there anything “normal” about our employers or neighbors having access to our personal data?

Before unplugging from our devices and opening up a beginner’s guide to going off the grid, we spoke with Boston University computer science professor Mayank Varia and professor of electrical and computer engineering Ari Trachtenberg. The experts talked about the newfound tracking technology, pressing privacy concerns and whether pandemic-era data collection will actually work to keep us safer in the future.

What are the most urgent privacy concerns in the United States regarding Covid-tracking initiatives?

Trachtenberg: As with every national and international emergency, there is an overwhelming desire to do whatever is possible to save lives, and we, as a society, are willing to set aside many privacy concerns in the interest of this goal. Two elements distinguish the Covid crisis from others:

  1. We have a historically unprecedented technological capability of intruding on the private lives of almost every individual in the country.
  2. There is a fundamental void of scientific understanding of the virus, its related diseases, its transmission mechanisms, levels of immunity granted from sickness, etc.

In other words, we have a national threat that we do not understand, and, if we throw everything we have at it, we will be left with pretty much no privacy whatsoever. This has the capability of fundamentally transforming the nature of U.S. society, and, if…



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