Apple, Google Launch COVID-19 Tracking Tech That’s Voluntary…for Now

April 15th, 2020 10:25 AM

Ready for Big Tech companies to review your movements to avoid the COVID-19 pandemic?

In mid-May, Apple and Google will lay the groundwork for optional technology that will notify users when they have entered the presence of a person with the coronavirus. This project was launched with the intention “to protect people and get society back up and running,” according to an April 10 announcement via Apple’s newsroom. The same announcement also made clear that the two tech giants will accomplish this via “[helping] governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design.”

“Contract tracing is seen as a key means for allowing society to reopen from shelter-in-place orders,” Axios explained in its coverage, “but there have been significant privacy concerns about requiring people to share their location and other personal data with the government.”

Axios also made note that while Google and Apple have tried to differentiate their brands and technologies from one another the past few years, the two companies are “launching this unprecedented collaboration as countries around the world eye technology solutions to track the spread of COVID-19.” This is done to “offer the maximum public health benefit without sacrificing individual privacy.”

Axios’ coverage summarized how the technology will work:

If someone tests positive for COVID-19 and enters that information into an app, 14 days worth of their contacts with other users are sent to a server.

The article also explained:

Phones periodically check if any recently encountered user has reported being infected. If so, a notification pops up letting the user know that someone they have been in contact with has tested positive and more information is provided.

Former Federal Trade Commission Chief Technologist and Senior Adviser to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer in the Obama White House Ashkan Soltani expressed his concerns about this plan by contrasting it with the measures done in China.

“Chineses citizens needed to show their 'red/orange/green' code before they were permitted to leave the house or to use public trans, etc,” he explained in an April 10 tweet. He later added: “This type of approach is likely to generate significant FALSE POSITIVES and FALSE NEGATIVES -- which is highly problematic when this data is (eventually) used to make decisions that will affect citizen's freedoms -- voluntarily or not.”

He also critically observed:

MOST IMPORTANTLY there's a REAL risk of abuse from these apps -- generating false alarms and Denial-of-Service attacks from people falsely flagging that they're infected with COVID19 (crying 'wolf) -- thereby potentially affecting the others they've digitally been in contact with.

A document from Google used images to explain how the program would work, also assuring

readers that their privacy, for now, remains a priority:

  • “Explicit user consent required

  • “Doesn’t collect personally identifiable information or user location data

  • “List of people you’ve been in contact with never leaves your phone

  • “People who test positive are not identified to other users, Google or Apple

  • “Will only be used for contact tracing by public health authorities for COVID-19 pandemic management

  • “Doesn’t matter if you have an Android phone or an iPhone - works across both”