Cartoon of contact tracing for COVID-19.

To Combat the COVID-19 Pandemic, the US Should Crowdsource Contact Tracing

By James Toomey

As states across the U.S. contemplate another lockdown to curb rising COVID-19 infections, it’s clear that we need to do something differently this time to ensure that our sacrifices are not wasted when we emerge.

To that end, we should try a crowdsourced, privately-run, anonymous, voluntary, and collaborative approach to contact tracing.

We’ve heard it countless times and in countless ways: the United States has failed at contact tracing. The technique, which has been effective at limiting transmission in many other countries, has plainly failed to contain the spread of the virus here.

Much has been written about the reasons for this failure, and there are surely many. In the early days, there was a great deal of enthusiasm about contact tracing apps. Although some exist, these apps largely haven’t panned out. This should be unsurprising. In order for contact tracing apps to work, a critical mass of people needs to use them. Assuming that the government was never going to mandate that (if it even could have), we should have expected that widespread voluntary adoption of an app that tracks you all the time and offers no benefit unless everyone else has it was not going to just happen.

Moreover, the kind of mandatory contact tracing that has been so effective in countries like South Korea would run into legal challenges in the United States. This is a good thing for its own reasons — although we want the courts to acknowledge some flexibility in response to public health emergencies, that is no reason to accept the indefinite suspension of our constitutional values. Months into the pandemic, many people are weary of oblique state and municipal re-opening plans, and it appears that neither our people nor our Constitution will support a mandatory, invasive, indefinite, government-run contact tracing program.

But if we are to slow the spread of COVID-19, we still need a credible plan for contact tracing. We should consider adopting a crowdsourced, voluntary approach to the task.

Crowdsourced contact tracing would involve private actors building, as soon as possible, a nationwide website where people who have tested positive for the virus would be able to anonymously disclose to the general public where they were over approximately the two days before they began feeling symptoms. This information would be available for anyone to view on the website. In other words, if you tested positive you would be able to tell the community that you were in the supermarket from 10am to noon yesterday. People who were also there could learn this for themselves and decide — based on what we know about transmission of the virus, and, hopefully, in consultation with a physician — what to do with that information.

There are many ways that this website could work. The least helpful, but also least technically sophisticated could simply post people’s disclosures on a county-by-county (or municipality-by-municipality) level. In smaller counties with lower case counts this might be enough for now.

Ideally, however, the website would aggregate the data into a more useful form. Perhaps it could feature a map where, if you click on a store or restaurant, it would say whether, when, and for how long people who tested positive were there in their infectious period (and maybe whether the employees have all since tested negative; information those employees could have the option to share). Or, barring a map, a list of locations where people who have tested positive had been, sorted by locality, could accomplish this same goal.

As a technical matter, none of these alternatives would be particularly challenging, and there are many private actors with the capability to get a workable version online in short order. The critical challenge would be uptake—encouraging people who test positive to disclose information on the website and encouraging people to use it in planning their activities. It won’t be perfect — nothing is — but there are good reasons to believe that uptake would be higher with something like this than with the alternatives.

For one, because the system is entirely voluntary — it is just people sharing information with each other—the website would run into none of the legal challenges of a mandatory program. And by eliminating the middleman, this approach is necessarily more efficient — both in time and treasure — than creating the literal army of traditional contact tracers required. Finally, a crowdsourced contact tracing website is substantially less invasive than the app-based model — which tracks you everywhere, all the time — and, unlike the apps, the crowdsourced approach provides the community with useful information even when uptake is low — even if only one person tells us that they were at a popular local supermarket while infectious, that would be good to know.

To be clear, this approach must supplement, rather than replace, traditional contact tracing methods. Obviously, people who test positive should personally tell the people with whom they were in contact. And traditional, human contact tracers have a critical role to play in facilitating this process. But this is already happening. If it’s not working — and, by all accounts, it is not — we need to do more.

This crowdsourced approach to contact tracing puts a great deal of faith in ordinary people. But it is a particular kind of faith that I think justified. We would give people with the virus a concrete and relatively low-commitment way to contribute to slowing the spread of the disease, and everyone else a way to plan their lives with some semblance of control. With limited government involvement and no public health flip-flopping, we may be able to avoid the asinine partisanship of masks.

Participation on crowdsourced contact tracing would be just another example of the intense and quiet heroism of those of tens of millions of Americans who have sacrificed from the beginning of the pandemic to do the right thing. I suspect that, if given the opportunity, many people — perhaps most; probably enough — would want to anonymously share the whereabouts of two days of their life to help mitigate the risk to which they exposed others through no fault of their own. After all, wouldn’t you?

James Toomey

James Toomey is an Assistant Professor of Law at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. Prior to joining the faculty at Pace, James was a Climenko Fellow & Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School. His scholarly work has appeared in the Virginia Law Review, the North Carolina Law Review, the Harvard Journal on Legislation and more.

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