Despite the continued global rise of COVID-19 cases, many countries are looking to begin reopening. In seeking a path forward, some have called for increased data collection regarding the spread of the virus and the efficacy of social distancing measures.
One answer to this call is a recent service announced jointly by Apple and Google, designed to track the spread of COVID-19 in real time through Bluetooth signaling using data provided to public health officials.
A Google overview describes the tool as relying on ‘keys’ that are transmitted from phone to phone through Bluetooth when users come into close range with one another. These keys would be marked as ‘healthy’ or ‘infected’ based on information reported by users to public health officials through an app. That app could then notify users if they had come into close contact with any infected users whose keys had been automatically received.
According to the overview, the service does not collect personal information and requires users to manually opt-in. Nevertheless, concerns regarding the extent to which apps or services such as this will protect user privacy have been raised.
“As a private citizen, I would not be comfortable with private companies turning over my location data to governmental agencies unless I was made fully aware of the use of the data and trusted the data would be used as specified in the data agreement,” University of Georgia Center for Geospatial Research director Marguerite Madden told Wired magazine.
The ACLU has also released a white paper arguing that any data-based solutions should be considered with caution and consideration of whether their implementation would deprive more effective and potentially less invasive solutions of attention and funding.
“People will only trust these systems if they protect privacy, remain voluntary, and store data on an individual’s device, not a centralized repository,” commented ACLU surveillance and cybersecurity counsel Jennifer Granick in a recent press release in response to the announcement by Apple and Google. “To their credit, Apple and Google have announced an approach that appears to mitigate the worst privacy and centralization risks,” she added, “but there is still room for improvement.”
Though others have raised privacy concerns, app-based virus tracking systems are becoming increasingly popular. Phone-based COVID-19 tracking tools are currently being developed by multiple different governments including Australia, with an app launched Sunday that has since been downloaded over 2 million times, Ireland, South Korea, and many others.
Yet not all countries agree on how to approach the technology. Germany, for example, decided against using a centralized service in favor of the Apple-Google service, while the UK on the other hand rejected the Apple-Google model in favor of a state-designed app.
In a recent interview, De Montfort University Cyber Technology Institute director Eerke Boiten discussed the dangers of such an approach. “It means that information is stored centrally that doesn’t need to be, leading to security risks both with the storage and the transmission to the central site, and opening up a risk of ‘function creep’ — people in charge going “you know what, if we have this information anyway, we might as well use it for…””
“Governments have a responsibility to ensure public safety and health,” Human Rights Watch senior China researcher Maya Wang said to the LA Times, “however, in emergencies like this they still have to respect human rights, which includes rights to privacy.”
The Apple-Google service is expected to be released in mid-May and will be available for both iPhone and Android users.