Katie Schaffer, Center for Community Alternatives,
Sam McCann, Neighborhood Defender Service,

At Press Conference, Civil Rights Groups, Health Advocates and Public Defenders Urge Passage of Bill Protecting Confidentiality of Contact Tracing Data

NEW YORK—Today, local and national civil rights groups, public health officials and legal service providers held a press conference to demand New York State lawmakers pass recently introduced legislation to ensure that contact tracing achieves its public health goals and is not weaponized against communities of color. 

View the full press conference here

Contract tracing is a necessary component of the fight against the novel coronavirus. Governor Cuomo has required that New York’s regions must each have thirty contact tracers per 100,000 residents in order to begin re-opening and public health officials are calling for near-universal participation. 

However, participation in contact tracing hinges on public trust. If individuals fear that participating in contact tracing will expose them or their loved ones to ICE enforcement or criminalization, they will simply choose not to participate. The public health goal of contact tracing – to stem the spread of COVID-19 – thus requires legislation that prohibits law enforcement or immigration enforcement from accessing contact tracing data. 

The events following the death of George Floyd have laid bare the distrust and fear of law enforcement that is felt so acutely within Black and brown communities. Allowing law enforcement to access – and weaponize – contact tracing data will disproportionately impact communities of color who have already borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as abusive enforcement of social distancing.

The use of contact tracing by law enforcement is already occurring in other states. In Minnesota, police claim to have used contact tracing to track protesters. This assertion alone will likely have a chilling effect on actual COVID-19 contact tracing. In New York State, sheriffs have been deputized as contact tracers in both Nassau and Erie Counties. 

This legislation, introduced by the Senate and Assembly Health Chairs, explicitly prohibits law enforcement and immigration enforcement agencies from serving as contact tracers and ensures that contact tracing information stays truly confidential by making it immune from legal process and inadmissible in judicial and administrative actions and proceedings. 

Legislators and advocates said the following:

“Contract tracing is a critical tool for New York to stop the spread of COVID-19, but it will only be effective if we ensure the data collected from New Yorkers remains entirely confidential and not used for law or immigration enforcement purpose,” said State Senator Gustavo Rivera, Chair of the Senate Health Committee. “With the contact tracing program already underway throughout our state, we have a responsibility to pass the Contract Tracing Privacy Protect Act immediately to fully protect New Yorkers’ privacy.”

“Contact tracing is not going to work unless people are confident the information they give to contact tracers is not going to be used against them, is not going to be given to the police, to immigration, or their employer,” said Assemblyperson Richard N. Gottfried, Chair of Assembly Health Committee. “We’ve done this before: when we needed to test people for HIV, we realized people were not going to get tested without strong privacy protections. We drafted landmark legislation to protect HIV testing information. We now need to do the same with COVID-19 contact tracing information.”

“As New Yorkers filled the streets protesting for Black lives in the midst of a pandemic that is disproportionately killing Black and brown people, the legislature responded by passing a crucial set of policing reforms last week. But as protests continue and COVID-19 continues to spread, the legislature must return to Albany and expediently pass S.8450-A/A.10500-A to ensure that law enforcement and ICE enforcement cannot serve as contact tracers and cannot access contact tracing information,” said Allie Bohm, Policy Counsel, New York Civil Liberties Union. “In response to the recent protests in Minnesota, law enforcement there began using contact tracing techniques to track protesters – and public health officials immediately lamented that the involvement of police hampered their efforts to build trust and participation in contact tracing. We cannot let that happen in New York. If individuals have any reason to believe that sharing the details of their lives will expose them or their loved ones to criminalization or deportation, they simply will not participate. Passing S.8450-A/A.10500-A is not just a privacy and civil rights imperative; it is a public health imperative.”

“It’s an unfortunate reflection on the state of US immigration authorities that a bill like this is necessary, but it’s also an unambiguous truth that New York state must pass legislation to protect this data,” said Max Hadler, Director of Health Policy, New York Immigration Coalition. “We cannot risk the success of the contact tracing efforts by failing to seal off access by federal authorities that have stopped at nothing over years to terrorize immigrant communities. We have to create the foundational elements that make it possible to genuinely assure community members that the information they provide in the collective fight against COVID-19 will not be used against them in any way, and this bill moves us closer to doing that.”

“The criminalization of disease has fallen on people with stigmatized identities, the poor, sex workers, Black women and men, and other people of color. The criminal legal system confronts these people as vectors of disease, not as human beings with dignity,” said Amir Sadeghi, National Community Outreach Coordinator, Center for HIV Law and Policy. “People will only cooperate with contact tracing if that cooperation will not cause any harm to them, their families, their friends, and their communities. It is essential we make that clear at a time when jurisdictions across the country are proposing to criminalize COVID-19.”

“As the public defender representing Northern Manhattan, we know the devastating impact that over-policing, systemic racism, and police brutality have on our communities. The coronavirus has had a more severe impact in our communities because of this history of inequality and access to resources. As we look to the future, we must think both about a system to combat the coronavirus and means to address the underlying systemic issues that have harmed communities of color,” said Alice Fontier, Managing Director of Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. “One thing should be clear to everyone: the relationship between the police and communities of color is broken. There is no trust. The police have not earned it. There is no good reason that the police or ICE should have access to everyone’s private health, location, and association data.”

“We need testing and contact tracing. But it will not make a difference if we don’t build trust in the community to engage fully in these programs,” said Guillermo Chacon, President, Latino Commission on AIDS. “We need laws that protect our most vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ community, the undocumented community. They’re essential to the economy, and we need to protect them, not only as essential workers, but as essential parts of our state.”

“Trust is core to our ability to counter the COVID epidemic in the United States. Today our country is teetering on the edge of rising infections and our ability to confront a second and third wave of infections that disproportionately affect Black and brown people,” said David Harvey, Executive Director, National Coalition of STD Directors. “We are here to join with our partners to call for the passage of this legislation and for senators Gillabrand and Schumer to pass comparable legislation at the national level.”

“When we’re talking about contact tracing in the fight against COVID, we must remember that our communities are exhausted by the surveillance on sex workers, on street vendors, on immigrant communities, on Black and brown communities,” said Mateo Guerrero, Lead Organizer, Make the Road New York. “We need to make sure communities have the resources they need, and we need to build trust. We can only do that through community programs, and engaging community members, and not by policing. There’s constant trauma that has come through police involvement.”

“Let’s be clear: contact tracing privacy protections are a matter of life and death. If we do not enact these laws, New Yorkers will die senselessly. If we do not enact these laws, the NYPD and ICE will continue to weaponize our data against our own communities. This is a pattern that has repeated itself time and time again,” Albert Fox Cahn, Executive Director, Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “Everytime the NYPD agrees to curb its analog abuses, it doubles down on digital dragnets. They will double down on using all the information they can to target communities of color, to target immigrant communities, to target street vendors and sex workers and so many of the overpoliced communities that have suffered from not only overpolicing but from COVID-19 itself. If we don’t act now, we’ll lose the opportunity to deploy the most valuable weapon we have against COVID-19.”

“In the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis, our #1 priority should be the health and safety of all New Yorkers,” said Justine Olderman, Executive Director of The Bronx Defenders.  COVID-19 has already caused disproportionate harm to low-income communities of color. The contact tracing process is essential for helping this state recover, but it cannot be used to further target and punish communities that have already borne the brunt of this pandemic. For contact tracing to work, lawmakers must guarantee that it is purely a public health tool – not one of law enforcement and ICE.”

“Black communities are bearing the brunt of two pandemics: COVID-19 and police violence,” said Katie Schaffer, Director of Advocacy and Organizing at Center for Community Alternatives. “In our efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19, we cannot create a new treasure trove of data for law enforcement or immigration enforcement to further target and criminalize communities of color.”