Twilio Helps New York City Reopen With Contract Tracing Operations Amidst Privacy Concerns

In May, New York City announced it was tapping tech company Twilio to launch a contract tracing operation to help reopen the city and economy. Part of the deal would see the deployment of a cloud-based contact center on Twilio Flex as well as the use of Twilio SMS and Voice as part of its COVID-19 tracing program.

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"Public health departments have identified contact tracing as a crucial step in the process. When implemented effectively, contact tracing can lessen the impact of COVID-19 on communities and economies by lowering mortality rates and allowing people to safely return to work," a spokesperson said in a statement.

The state also announced it would hire thousands of contact tracers and supervisors to identify those infected with the virus, track the people they had contact with in recent weeks, and reach out to them for testing, thereby slowing the spread of the disease.

"Tracing is not hard on an individual basis," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said when recently announcing the program. "The problem is the massive scale and with an operation that has never existed before."

However, there are growing privacy concerns with the program.

Data and privacy concerns aren't new territory for tech companies, but with governments now tracking its citizens’ movements in the spirit of public safety, there are legitimate worries for how far this will go.

Around the US, Attorney Generals are imploring Apple and Google to address privacy concerns surrounding their tracing efforts. In an open letter, they've asked that any app not verified or affiliated with a public health department be removed by Apple and/or Google. This comes as contact tracing apps with GPS tracking, advertisements, and in-app purchases that do not collect data for research institutions are being found in app stores. The letter also demands that all contact tracing apps be removed from the app store and Google Play once the pandemic ends.

In Norway, the first national contact tracing app to be launched in Europe has been suspended after the country's data protection authority raised concerns. The app, called Smittestopp, posed a threat to user privacy by continuously uploading locations. As of June 3, Smittestopp had around 600,000 active users

CBS reported that many Americans also have concerns about being tracked by the government. Ten states currently rely on people to download a COVID-19 tracking app, promising to guard their health as well as their privacy.

Devang Sachdev, Senior Director of Product Marketing at Twilio, noted that Twilio Flex "can be deployed in a HIPAA compliant manner" and would work to ensure that any and all sensitive personal information on the platform lies behind the appropriate safeguards at every stage of the contact tracing process.