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Contact tracing phone apps will be opt in, will not violate privacy, says Raimondo

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In this crisis, public trust in government fosters the necessary voluntary compliance with orders and recommendations. Tracking all Rhode Islanders like they are parolees cuts against the very fabric of individual privacy in our free society and risks tearing down that trust, thus undermining the public’s willingness to voluntarily comply with further COVID-19 response efforts.


The State of Rhode Island has been using cellphone data to track people’s compliance and their movement during the COVID-19 pandemic. The source of the data is publicly available, avowed Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo during a phone call with reporters yesterday. “There is zero ability to identify individuals,” continued the Governor.

Contact tracing is the process of detailing the contacts of infected persons, testing those contacts for infection, treating the infected and tracing their contacts in turn, in an effort to reduce infections in the population.

The plan going forward will be to encourage Rhode Islanders to install an App on their cellphones that will monitor the individual’s location and contact information. And that information will need to be stored and analyzed.

This intense government interest into the private lives and associations of American residents may be necessary from a public health perspective, but is concerning from the perspective of civil liberties. Governor Raimondo already came very close, if she didn’t actually step over the line, to violating the Constitution when she ordered the State Police and the National Guard to stop automobiles with out of state plates and send soldiers door-to-door to enforce quarantines and gather information about out-of-state visitors.

In defending those policies, Raimondo said, “I have lawyers on my side advising me … [that this] is an emergency and what is constitutional in one scenario, is different in another.”


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The entirety of the Republican membership of the Rhode Island General Assembly signed onto a letter imploring Governor Raimondo to not “attempt to track personally-identifiable cellular phone location data, absent specific user consent or a judicial warrant.”

They note in their letter that a bill Governor Raimondo signed into law two years ago prevents the State of Rhode Island or any of its subcontractors from obtaining cellphone location information “without a warrant unless a warrant requirement exception applies.”

And COVID-19 is not a warrant requirement exception, say the Republicans.

The letter goes on to say:

Legalities aside, an involuntary cellular phone tracking initiative will likely undermine our efforts to combat the COVID-19 crisis. Every major crisis has its own unique challenges, but success always hinges on one essential factor – the trust of the People in their leaders. In this crisis, public trust in government fosters the necessary voluntary compliance with orders and recommendations. Tracking all Rhode Islanders like they are parolees cuts against the very fabric of individual privacy in our free society and risks tearing down that trust, thus undermining the public’s willingness to voluntarily comply with further COVID-19 response efforts.

More details as to what exact form future contact tracing will take will be unveiled over the coming weeks.

Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade. atomicsteve@gmail.com