Google And Apple Will Enable Mobile Phones To Trace User Contacts In Coronavirus Fight

Because privacy threats are unavoidable, the effectiveness of the solution in halting the spread of the virus depends on the mobility giants convincing large numbers of iOS and Android users to accept the tradeoff between privacy and the utility of the data, says one solution provider


The coronavirus crisis is uniting Apple and Google in a project to enable mobile phones to trace people’s movements and their proximity to others who may have contracted or been exposed to the novel virus that’s frozen the global economy.

The fierce competitors in the mobility market said Friday they are working together to fast-track a contact-tracing solution that gives public health officials another tool in fighting the global outbreak—one that raises stark concerns about privacy that may extend beyond the best intentions of those companies.

“On one hand, I would trust Apple and Google, especially working together in this sort of consortium, to handle the data more appropriately than a random third party,” said Michael Oh, president and founder of Cambridge, Mass.-based TSP, an IT solutions provider that has long worked with Apple technology.

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[Related: Coronavirus Will Change Tech Landscape In A ‘Radical’ Way, Solution Providers Say]

But the problem with those types of systems—and encouraging more people to opt into using them—is that the raw data is out there, and “someone, somewhere, has a database of the association of every person” who participates.

Widely deploying a technology rife with very real privacy threats might be the cost society has to endure to enable a process that would almost certainly go far in allowing a return to some semblance of normality.

“There’s this trade-off between the privacy and utility of the data,” Oh said. “It’s going to be hard to retain 100 percent of the privacy … but clearly this is a different world than it was six weeks ago.”

China, where the government can more-easily mandate its citizens to surrender their privacy, has already deployed similar technology in hard-hit regions. People who want to access public areas in Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic, must flash a “green pass” on their smartphone.

Apple and Google said the effort, made in the same “spirit of collaboration” that’s motivating software developers all over the world to build tools to combat the pandemic, will use Bluetooth networking to track when people are close to one another.

In May, the companies will release APIs that empower developers from public health agencies to build contact-tracing applications that are interoperable across their rival mobile operating systems and can be downloaded from their respective app stores.

And “in the coming months” the Bluetooth-based functionality will be built directly into the iOS and Android platforms, allowing even more participants and better integration with a broader ecosystem of apps and public health agencies, Apple and Google said.

The companies pledged that privacy controls will be at the forefront of their joint work.

“Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders,” Apple and Google said, adding they will openly publish information about their work “for others to analyze.”

Such oversight could be essential for the project to succeed in widely monitoring and limiting potential coronavirus exposure, Oh said.

There’s no way around creating a database that contains highly personal contact information—one that geolocation information can be referenced against.

“Does law enforcement get access to that?” Oh asked. “There’s many layers of the onion that people have already tried to peel back.”

Allowing third-party technological experts to “get a peak under the hood” to validate the privacy and security of the processes Apple and Google create might help win public confidence and encourage large numbers of Android and iPhone users to opt in.

Easing the reluctance of people to participate is what’s necessary for the solution to be effective, as the underlying technological capabilities are nothing extraordinary.

While Apple and Google can streamline development and fast-track deployment of contact-tracing applications, “the reality is those capabilities have already been built into many platforms,” Oh said.

One vivid example of that was recently offered by a company called Tectonix GEO that released a time-evolved map illustrating the exodus of Spring Breakers from a single Fort Lauderdale beach. That visual example of the dangers in not restricting public gathering was created in partnership with X-Mode, which supplies location tracking services to any app developers that want them.

Want to see the true potential impact of ignoring social distancing? Through a partnership with @xmodesocial, we analyzed secondary locations of anonymized mobile devices that were active at a single Ft. Lauderdale beach during spring break. This is where they went across the US:

— Tectonix GEO (@TectonixGEO) March 25, 2020

“These are widely available. They have been built into hundreds if not thousands of mobile applications that are doing similar things,” Oh said. “Just not with Covid, but advertising cookies.”