- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 26, 2020

You needn’t be a hi-tech hipster to be familiar with Siri of Appleland or Alexa of Googleville, the artificially intelligent ladies at your beck and call now hanging out with a new kid on the AI block.

Its name is contact tracing, and it’s being deployed in the battle to rein in COVID-19.

Technically, contact tracing isn’t new. The D.C. Department of Health and other public health agencies are well-acquainted with the probing policies of contact tracing, which were deployed to connect the dots against such scourges as STDs, HIV/AIDS, Ebola, food poisoning and E.coli.

Artificial eyes can become productive tools — if privacy laws, regulations and rules are followed and apolitical.

Still, think of contact tracing by way of a question: Would you entrust your personal and health data in the hands of a high school grad who barely earned a diploma and doesn’t know Georgia, the U.S. Peach State, from Georgia, the Eurasian nation-state?

Here’s a brief description of how contact works. Apple and Google have joined the coronavirus fight by helping track people who have COVID-19. The “trackers” — government and nonprofit workers — ask the “tracked” persons who they might have been in contact with. Next, the tracked are asked to divulge where, when and with whom they had contact — including names and addresses.

Now, when it comes to STDs, infected persons are asked to name and provide contact information for their sexual contacts, regardless of the relationship. Some lie, some provide a little information and some simply clam up. That’s human behavior for you.

The same would apply to COVID-19, so be forewarned.

Siri and Alexa are always listening, awaiting your request for safety recalls for food or toys. In fact, the only time they aren’t awaiting your command is when they are locked down, and I don’t mean locked down as we are in our homes. I mean off, unplugged. No AC, no DC.

And don’t forget that smartphones, smart TVs and refrigerators, security systems, GPS systems and bluetooth connections can spread what comes out of your mouth, too — and AI speaks more than one language, and closed-circuit TV and cameras have ears.

Now let’s turn to privacy and politics.

The popular website WebMD recently reported this projection from Crystal Watson, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security: “There are currently around 30,000 contact tracers That might sound like not much, but it’s better than what it was at the start of this national emergency, when there were only 2,200 trained contact tracers in state health departments around the United States.”

Understand, where governors, legislatures, mayors and town councils were once berating the Trump administration for shortages of masks, ventilators, hand sanitizer and toilet paper, they are now pressing to hire contact tracing and train their bureaucracies.

Ms. Watson, again by way of example, estimated that states will need at least 100,000 workers trained in contact tracing. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said Tuesday morning that the city will have an estimated 200 contact tracers by June 1 and the response has been “tremendous.”

The political and economic price tags for contact tracing are immeasurable at this junction, even though we won’t hit the polls until November. However, it’s safe to say our privacy won’t be the No. 1 concern with regard to technology, training, hiring and oversight.

Politicians have yet to disclose how they will keep personal information of test results, contact tracing and treatment out of the hands of hackers, jerks, fly-by-night researchers and blackmailers.

The issue begs the privacy question. Do Alexa and Siri have answers?

Deborah Simmons can be contacted at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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