Minnesota law enforcement isn’t “contact tracing” protesters, despite an official’s comment

A Minnesota state official raised fears when he suggested that police were using Covid-like “contact tracing” to track protesters. | Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

The appropriation of the term could undermine public health efforts.

“Contact tracing” has become the term du jour in the coronavirus era, as it’s largely seen as one of our best, time-tested tools to contain the spread of the virus and safely reopen the country. But it’s also controversial, especially with the rollout of digital contact tracing tools , some of which were created by data-greedy tech companies. Privacy advocates have feared that the public health crisis could give rise to surveillance methods that are applied to other areas long after the pandemic has passed. Some are stoking those fears.
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety raised alarm bells last weekend when Commissioner John Harrington said in a press conference that law enforcement was using “contact tracing” on arrested protesters.

Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington says they've begun contact tracing arrestees. "Who are they associated with? What platforms are they advocating for? ... Is this organized crime? ... We are in the process right now of building that information network." pic.twitter.com/U0KNIVHnf6 — NBC News (@NBCNews) May 30, 2020

“As we’ve begun making arrests, we have begun analyzing the data of who we have arrested and begun actually doing what we think is almost pretty similar to our Covid,” Harrington said. “It’s contact tracing.”
Not quite. According to Minnesota public health authorities, Harrington was referring to the normal process of law enforcement investigations. He did not mean that the police were using data from Covid-19 contact tracing efforts or tools to assist in those investigations, as some have interpreted his remarks to mean.
“He used the term ‘contract tracing’ as a metaphor,” Julie Bartkey, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Health, told Recode. “Just as we at MDH have used the term ‘disease investigators’ to describe our epi[demiology] processes, they used a public health term. But their process does not involve public health authorities.”
A spokesperson for Harrington agreed.
“He is talking about typical criminal investigative work, not a new technology or strategy,” Bruce Gordon, director of communications for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, told Recode. “He borrowed a term from the Covid-19 world.”
Contact tracing is the process of finding out who an infected person has had recent contact with, and then informing those people that they’ve been exposed to the illness in order to avoid further spread of the disease. In the absence of a national effort to contain the virus, states have hired thousands of people to do this work. Somewhat ironically, Minnesota does not appear to be one of them. The state...