As Texas moves forward on a multimillion-dollar contract with a questionable company to track who Texans have been in contact with, grassroots leaders in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex have expressed concern about their right to privacy. They also have questions for Gov. Greg Abbott.

The Center for Disease Control describes contact tracing as “a core disease control measure employed by local and state health department personnel for decades” and “a key strategy for preventing further spread of COVID-19.”

Call-center workers known as contact tracers follow up with infected patients to see who they’ve been in contact with. Tracers would then  reach out to these individuals and encourage them to get tested or to self-quarantine.

To help with contact tracing, Apple and Google have made the Bluetooth technology in their smartphones available for governments to track who coronavirus-infected patients have been in contact with. While both companies argue they are working to maintain privacy, they still retain the ability to remotely force your smartphone to track who you’ve been in contact with and record these interactions in a log. These logs could then be handed over to government officials.

In a letter to Abbott this week, State Rep. Steve Toth (R–The Woodlands) wrote:

“As the ink on the contract was drying, we learned that MTX did not have experience in contact tracing or the handling of confidential medical information that is at the core of the project.”

Toth also pointed out MTX Group does not have a call center that complies with HIPAA privacy guidelines.

“This is basically putting—instead of medical doctors—this is putting government officials that have nothing to do with medicine … the state, and local counties, and all of them … getting involved in contact tracing,” Grant Bynum, one of the founders of the Open Texas and Texans Against Contact Tracing Facebook groups, told Texas Scorecard.

Bynum says contact tracing is nothing new and was typically performed by doctors.

“The big thing is, it’s on a very small scale,” Bynum said. “It’s operated by doctors, and then it’s within the HIPAA framework of privacy.”

“That kind of contact tracing, no problem,” he said. “This kind of contact tracing is a whole new animal.”

To conduct the tracing, the State of Texas has signed a 27-month, $295 million taxpayer-funded contract with MTX Group.

“My biggest problem with what the state is doing is the unnecessary expense,” said Fran Rhodes, president of True Texas Project. “If it had been done extensively back in [February] or March, it might have had some impact. But at this late date, when [the coronavirus is] dying off (for now, anyway), with numbers declining, I just don’t see the point.”

A previously published blog on the company’s website mentions that in Oklahoma, where MTX already has active technology, “employees and students might be required by their organizations and school administration to go through antibody testing before they can rejoin their facilities for work and education.”

Based on this, Bynum questions whether or not contact tracing will remain optional in Texas. “They say right now that it can be optional, but I don’t think so,” he said. “I think it’s going to turn into mandatory. And even if it was optional, it shouldn’t be happening with county officials and state officials.”

“It needs to stay exactly where it is with doctors.”

“Does Gov. Abbott think that Texans have bestowed carte blanche to him to shred our Constitution and trample on our privacy and rights?” asked Dallas activist Susan Fountain. “If I was totally disappointed in the 86th Legislative Session’s liberal outcome, it paled in the shadow of the current $295 million spent by Abbott, without oversight, to track Texans and invade our privacy.  What was he thinking?”

“Contact tracing is fascist tyranny,” said Tarrant County activist Karen Starnes. “I will not sacrifice liberty for the sake of fake security.”

“I will not be tracked or traced even under the mask of public safety and public health,” said Dallas activist Troy Jackson. “I will not give up my privacy rights for health[.] Give me liberty or give me death.”

“It is not now, nor will it ever be, the role of the government to keep us healthy, but instead to protect our freedom to do so ourselves as we see fit,” said Jackie Schlegel, executive director of Texans for Vaccine Choice. “TFVC will remain outspoken against these efforts of considerable government expansion and will guard vigilantly against the threats to the rights of our members.”

“I voted for Gov. Abbott,” Bynum added. “I’m a fan of Gov. Abbott, but not on this thing.”

Concerned Texans may contact Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and their state senator and representative.

Robert Montoya

Born in Houston, Robert Montoya is an investigative reporter for Texas Scorecard. He believes transparency is the obligation of government.