Apple and Google Enter an Uncommon Partnership During Pandemic
Jacob Bourne posted on April 18, 2020 |
The tech giants plan to deploy contact tracing smartphone apps in coming weeks.

Although the COVID-19 infection curve rate has begun to flatten in some regions, the pandemic isn’t expected to be over anytime soon. As is common practice with disease outbreaks, public health organizations and departments have conducted contract tracing investigations to help curb new infections by informing people who have come in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Those people in turn can get tested or quarantine if necessary to prevent further spread. In an attempt to make contact tracing a high-tech enterprise, Apple and Google have partnered to release a joint application programming interface for a smartphone-based contact tracing program.

On April 10 the companies announced the joint effort to use Bluetooth beacons to track those who downloaded an optional tracking software on their phones (iPhone and Android). The software is geared to be available next month and the companies have promised that privacy and security will be top priorities. “Contract tracing can help slow the spread of COVID-19 and can be done without compromising user privacy,” tweeted Tim Cook, CEO of Apple. “We’re working with @sundarpichai and @Google to help health officials harness Bluetooth technology in a way that also respects transparency & consent.”

When two people who have the apps installed on their phones have close physical interactions, their phones will send anonymous but universally unique identifiers mutually. As a security precaution, the identifiers will automatically change every 15 minutes and the data will only be stored on user’s phones. Then, if one of the people is later diagnosed with COVID-19, they can input that information on a public health authority app, and with the infected person’s consent, 14 days’ worth of the identifiers will be uploaded to the cloud where the information can be used to contact those with flagged identifiers.

The system holds some promise for reducing infections but many are concerned about privacy, effectiveness of the software and whether there will be a critical mass of users. Because the initiative relies on adequate COVID-19 testing, in places where that’s not occurring, the technology will be moot. Also, enough people must be willing to install the software on their phones and contact health authorities if they test positive to make a difference. Another consideration is whether the Bluetooth beacons will be able to discern distances down to mere feet or the presence of a protective barrier between individuals in proximity. Beyond the plethora of concerns, privacy tops the list stemming from the tech giants’ reputation for privacy invasions as well as whether the tracking program will continue once pandemic is over. Furthermore, Bluetooth itself has been fraught with security concerns.

"No contact tracing app can be fully effective until there is widespread, free, and quick testing and equitable access to health care,” said Jennifer Granick, American Civil Liberties Union surveillance and cybersecurity counsel. “These systems also can’t be effective if people don’t trust them. People will only trust these systems if they protect privacy, remain voluntary, and store data on an individual's device, not a centralized repository. At the same time, we must be realistic that such contact tracing methods are likely to exclude many vulnerable members of society who lack access to technology and are already being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.”

Despite the warning, Granick credited Apple and Google for being proactive about mitigating privacy and centralization risks and called for more measures that will protect the general public from adverse consequences of the technology’s use. However, an ACLU white paper published on April 8 outlined limitations of using technology for contact tracing, including testaments from engineers and business executives stating that location data isn’t a suitable means of COVID-19 contact tracing.

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