apple and google. masters of privacy. how is it even possible. here’s the concept.
apple and google just announced an unprecedented collaboration to leverage their smartphone technology to help trace and contain the spread of covid-19.
the collaboration will open up their mobile operating systems (!) to allow for the creation of advanced contact-tracing apps, which will run on iphones and android phones alike.
the apps would work by using bluetooth technology in mobile phones to keep track of every other phone a person comes into close contact with over the course of a day; if that person later finds out they have covid-19, they can use the same system to alert all those people, dating back to before they would have become infectious.
the idea is to help national governments roll out these contact-tracing apps to allow lockdowns to be lifted earlier, by letting authorities much more readily identify new clusters of infection. the technology would also help those who have been exposed to a person with covid-19 self-isolate before they themselves become infectious.
of course there are concerns. privacy for one. opting to use bluetooth rather than location services which are very secure.
“no contact-tracing app can be fully effective until there is widespread, free and quick testing and equitable access to healthcare,” jennifer granick, the surveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the aclu said. “people will only trust these systems if they protect privacy, remain voluntary, and store data on an individual’s device, not a centralized repository.”
privacy and civil liberties activists have warned that such apps need to be designed so governments cannot abuse them to track their citizens. apple and google said in a joint announcement that user privacy and security are baked into the design of their plan.
pam dixon, executive director of the world privacy forum, said she will be looking closely at the companies’ privacy assurances and for evidence that any health data they collect will be deleted once the emergency is over.
“people are dying. we have to save lives. everyone understands that,” she said. “but at some point, we’re going to have to understand the privacy consequences of this.”
security experts also note that technology alone cannot effectively track down and identify people who may have been infected by covid-19 carriers. such efforts will require other tools and teams of public healthcare workers to track people in the physical world, they say. in south korea and china, such efforts have included the use of credit card and public transit records.
given the great need for effective contact tracing, the companies will roll out their changes in two phases. in the first, they will release software in may that lets public health authorities release apps for both android and ios phones. in the coming months, they will also build this functionality directly into the underlying operating systems.
recently the companies released preliminary technical specifications for the effort, which they called privacy-preserving contact tracing.
we are grateful that this collaboration is being attempted to help subdue the coronavirus.
agencies contributed reporting