Google and Apple unveiled a joint initiative Friday to develop a coronavirus smartphone “contact tracing” tool that could potentially alert people when they have crossed paths with an infected person.
The move brings together the largest mobile operating systems in an effort to use smartphone location technology to track and potentially contain the global COVID-19 outbreak.
The move would allow apps to be created enabling smartphones powered by Apple software and Google-backed Android operating system to exchange information with a joint “opt in system” using Bluetooth wireless technology.
The companies next month plan to release software interface technology to allow for interoperability — so that an alert would work regardless of the operating system.
“All of us at Apple and Google believe there has never been a more important moment to work together to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems,” the companies said in a joint statement.
The move comes with governments around the world studying or implementing measures to use smartphone location technology to identify people with the virus and keep them from infecting others, even as the efforts raise privacy and civil liberties concerns.
US President Donald Trump said during a briefing that the government would take “a very strong look” at the contact-tracing collaboration.
Apple and Google contended that “privacy, transparency, and consent” were top priorities in the joint initiative, addressing concerns about systems which could disclose personal data on individuals.
“Contact tracing can help slow the spread of COVID-19 and can be done without compromising user privacy,” Apple chief executive Tim Cook said in a tweet.
Tracking people’s movements using their smartphones, while a temptingly powerful tool for containing the coronavirus comes with privacy concerns and fears regarding how the data might be misused.
“No contact tracing app can be fully effective until there is widespread, free, and quick testing and equitable access to healthcare. These systems also can’t be effective if people don’t trust them,” said Jennifer Granick of the American Civil Liberties Union in a statement.
“People will only trust these systems if they protect privacy, remain voluntary, and store data on an individual’s device, not a centralized repository,”
Apple and Android combined essentially power the world’s smartphones, so working together would be required to effectively trace coronavirus contacts based on mobility data, according to analysts.
Apple has long made user privacy a selling point for iPhones, and is bringing those credentials to the coronavirus collaboration, noted Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi.
“Apple is providing their privacy seal, of sorts, to what is being done,” Milanesi said. “That is good.”
However, neither Apple nor Google can guarantee what ultimately becomes of mobility data gathered for the coronavirus fighting effort, warned analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights and Strategy.
“You put these two companies’ ecosystems together and you have literally 100 percent of mobile data,” Moorhead said.
Technology-enabled or digital contact tracing has played a “conspicuously visible” part of the pandemic responses of South Korea, Singapore, Israel, and other nations, law professor and privacy researcher Ryan Calo said in Senate testimony this week.
“I understand the intuition behind digital contact tracing,” Calo said in prepared remarks.
“But I see the gains in the fight against the virus as unproven and the potential for unintended consequences, misuse, and encroachment on privacy and civil liberties to be significant.”
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