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CC Cover Feature Illustration June 2020COVID-19 is poised to overtake the post-9/11 government surveillance surge—what role will companies choose to play in this? Digital contact tracing apps are being used and developed around the world with the goal of reducing the spread of COVID-19 and thus saving lives. At their base, such tools track and inform people when they have been near a COVID-positive person by gathering location data using Bluetooth or GPS on their smartphones. Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan were some of the earliest state adopters, having built up their digital disaster-response infrastructure following the outbreaks of SARS and MERS, but Germany, France, the U.K., and the U.S.—among many others—are on their heels. While there is some concern that the promise of digital contact tracing apps is overblown, some early research suggests that it can help—particularly where adoption of the technology is widespread and one part of an overall approach that includes extensive testing.

While some states are creating tools of their own, still more are partnering with companies to develop the technology—and tech companies are rising to the occasion. Thus far, digital contact tracing tools vary widely in their consideration of the human rights of the populations they are designed to serve. This article discusses international human rights law during a pandemic, the human rights considerations of digital contact tracing, and recommendations for companies seeking to design their technology in way that promotes, rather than harms, human rights.

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