Apple, Google Join Forces To Create Free Tools For Coronavirus Tracking
from the stepping-up-when-the-gov't-won't...-or-at-least-shouldn't dept
Fortunately, the US government hasn’t decided (yet!) to opt everyone into some sort of tracking program to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. This doesn’t mean you can’t opt yourself into tracking to head off possible infections and/or gauge your risk level.
Apple and Google are working together to build a set of tools that can be used to track the spread of the virus, and it’s all purely voluntary. Obviously, there are some concerning aspects about the use of these tools by public health agencies, but the companies have done a pretty good job lowering the risk of these being turned into always-on surveillance apps.
This is from Apple’s press release, which is light on details but gives a broad overview of what’s happening.
First, in May, both companies will release APIs that enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. These official apps will be available for users to download via their respective app stores.
Second, in the coming months, Apple and Google will work to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms. This is a more robust solution than an API and would allow more individuals to participate, if they choose to opt in, as well as enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities. Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders. We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyze.
These will allow for voluntary contact tracing using Bluetooth signals. A unique signal would be broadcast by participants to nearby devices, including those within the CDC-recommended six feet minimum for social distancing. Users would self-report their COVID status, broadcasting that info as well. No one’s location data is gathered and their movements aren’t tracked. All processing of signals occurs on users’ devices.
More details can be found in spec sheets released by the companies. Apple’s notes that device privacy is protected by identifiers that change every 15 minutes, making it almost impossible to use the APIs for long-term tracking of people’s movements. If a user tests positive for COVID-19, they must opt in to sharing that data with the API servers.
There are no perfect solutions for this pandemic and this one isn’t. But it’s far more robust and more respectful of users’ privacy than most of what’s being pushed by governments elsewhere in the world. The addition of government fabric to the framework doesn’t undercut the protections built into the system. The upside for public health agencies is better, faster tracking of viral spread — something that’s almost impossible at this point in time.
The downsides are mostly related to the tech itself and the nature of human beings. Bluetooth signals don’t necessarily indicate human contact — especially when lots of people live in close proximity but are rarely face-to-face, like in large apartment complexes.
Also worrying is the potential for abuse by the worst human beings, of which there are far too many. Ashkan Soltani suggests the apps could be misused to troll the system into uselessness.
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
Finally, there’s the problem with our healthcare system in general. There supply of reliable tests is still limited and it seems unlikely heading to your primary care provider with a Bluetooth positive (but no symptoms) is going to persuade them to test you for the virus. Hopefully the availability of tests will increase as time goes on, making this tool more useful to more people.
Even the ACLU seems cautiously supportive of the tech companies’ joint effort:
“To their credit, Apple and Google have announced an approach that appears to mitigate the worst privacy and centralization risks, but there is still room for improvement. We will remain vigilant moving forward to make sure any contact tracing app remains voluntary and decentralized, and used only for public health purposes and only for the duration of this pandemic.”
As always, the biggest drawback of this effort is also its greatest strength: it’s entirely voluntary. In a nation of rugged individualists (which unfortunately includes people who believe this isn’t actually a pandemic or that the 5G rollout is somehow linked to the coronavirus), it’s tough to get people to buy into voluntary health efforts, no matter how beneficial they may be to themselves or anyone else around them. Mandatory tracking would provide better data faster, but our government hasn’t shown it can be trusted to handle this much power responsibly. So, voluntary it is and whatever buy-in there is will be better than the nothing we’re doing now.