Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt announced this week that he is urging the Kansas Legislature to enact a law governing coronavirus contact tracing to create a legal framework to protect personal information and civil liberties.
“While contact tracing is a familiar tool to the public health community, the anticipated scope of expansion of the practice during the COVID-19 pandemic is certain to present challenging legal issues not addressed by current Kansas law,” Schmidt wrote in a letter to Gov. Laura Kelly and legislative leaders last week.
“Already, concerns have been raised about whether and how cellphone location data may be used to track the movements of Kansans, [a]nd major global data companies have announced they are developing technologies specifically to enable automated contact tracing through individuals’ cellphones. At least one lawsuit has been filed and resolved when the local government involved agreed to change its low-tech data-collection practices. All of this is occurring without even a basic statutory architecture to guide development and deployment of the practice and management of the sensitive personal information collected.”
Contact tracing, which is practiced by public health officials to identify people who have had contact with an infected individual, Schmidt’s office noted in a press release, is considered crucial by many public health officials to enable a safe reopening and economic recovery. It is used to identify new virus outbreaks and contain them before they can spread further. The absence of law governing contact tracing, however, causes concern for many, the release noted.
Locally, the Crawford County Commission recently approved a letter of support for a contact tracing phone application called Check-in Crawford County.
“Much of this is unplowed legal ground, and I recognize that the relatively short time available [during the special session] will not allow development of a thoughtful, comprehensive contact-tracing statute,” Schmidt wrote in his letter. “More thorough study in an interim committee or during the next regular legislative session no doubt will be advisable. But perhaps crafting a simple, basic framework to guide development of the practice at least through the remainder of this year is possible and advisable.”
Schmidt would be willing to work with legislative leaders on a bill draft, according to the release, and such a bill should address issues including whether participation in contact tracing is voluntary or mandatory, whether contact information will remain private and confidential, whether cellphone location data will be used, what data will be collected, who will collect, possess or have access to the data, what purposes that data will be used for, and how long it will be retained by the government.