Over the past weekend, Apple and Google announced they would be partnering on technology to notify people via smartphone, on an opt-in basis, if they’ve come into contact with someone with COVID-19. Instead of relying on users’ location information, the contact tracing technology uses Bluetooth on your phone, which will briefly register any other Bluetooth devices that come within six feet of it. According to Apple and Google users’ information will not be collected or shared with government officials.
Public health officials from around the world have praised this contact tracing technology in an effort to help stop COVID-19, but there are also some data privacy experts who are weary to trust two of the largest tech corporations to ever exist. According to Axios, Apple and Google said they wanted to create something that offers the maximum public health benefit without compromising individual privacy.
Google and Apple stated what specific steps they’ve taken to ensure people’s privacy and information are secure. They are allowing personal choice whether to use the technology via opting in. They are not collecting location or other personally identifiable information. The actual list of people a user has been in contact created by the phone through bluetooth will not leave the phone unless desired. Most importantly only public health authorities will be able to create apps using Apple and Google’s new contact-tracing technology, and governments won’t be able to force people to use the tech. Apple and Google will not collect location information or identifying information about anybody who tests positive and they also require that person to consent to share the data that is collected. Yet, there are still privacy experts who have their doubts.
“When one hears ‘Google and Apple’ together, privacy and security are not the first things that come to mind,” said ZP Hou, the CEO of Suterusu, in a Coindesk article. “Their intentions are in the right place, in trying to use tech for good and help reduce the transmission of COVID-19. But in reality, these are two of the largest tech mega-corporations in existence, and their historical commitment to privacy is lackluster at best.” Another privacy expert Keith Robinson, the head of Product Management at Scentrics, says he sees the benefits of not sharing or collecting location data, but they don’t give enough detail on what that entails. “There is no mention of how data shared with the server will be used or how long it will be retained for,” he said. “Nor is there mention of how the application should dispose of its own data, or the matches it has found.”
The technology will be introduced in two phases. In the middle of May, the companies will update their operating system to support the contact-sharing technique and allow for contact-tracing apps. Then in the following months the technology will be able to run without the specific apps required. For “Contact Tracing” to work, people will need to believe in Apple and Google in the management of this data and that the data provided for this technology will genuinely benefit those suffering during this current pandemic. Yesterday, Apple released a mobility data trends tool through Apple Maps that uses aggregated data sets collected from the app to compare and analyze the change in volume of people driving, walking or taking public transit around the world. It is fair to say both Apple and Google are doing their part in combating the coronavirus, but when your data is at stake always be sure of where it is going or who is collecting it.