And just like that, coronavirus smartphone tracking made it to the big leagues. The announcement today, April 10, that Apple and Google are stepping in to make sure this is done properly is the game-changer. There was some debate beforehand as to which tracking method would win out—network pings, GPS databases or dedicated apps. But now it’s clear that the Bluetooth system adopted in Singapore and then picked up in Europe and elsewhere looks likely to dominate.
As I reported on April 7, relying on your smartphone to warn if you’ve risked possible infection is set to become a reality for most of us some time soon. There has been so much traction in such a short space of time, making it difficult to manage this properly, prompting Europe’s privacy watchdog to call for an international solution. Now Google and Apple are making sure that happens.
The systems now being put in place use Bluetooth’s Relative Signal Strength Indicator and a masked unique identifier to backtrack a timeline when a patient is newly diagnosed with coronavirus. The dataset can work out and then contact all those who were near the new patient over recent days or weeks and for how long. The same system can then message those individuals to self-isolate or seek testing, depending upon the policies in place locally. All without breaching privacy.
The joint initiative between Apple and Google is set to make this work cross-platform in a matter of weeks. “In May,” the tech giants said in a statement, “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.”
The U.K. and other European countries are working on their apps now. Germany looks like being the first to adopt a wannabe pan-European alternative. The U.S. is exploring its options. This may start to align all of those efforts around some common privacy and data protection parameters, as well as honing effectiveness.
But this goes much further. A few months down the road, the intention is to shift from cross-enabling apps to building “a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform … into the underlying platforms.” This would, in theory, provide a national-level scheme, country by country, enabled by the smartphone operating systems carried by almost all of us. The theory also goes that to do this completely openly, publishing standards and privacy protections, will push up the level of engagement across a population. Such systems only work if 60% or more of the public in any country or region participate.
“Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort,” Apple and Google have assured, “and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders—through close cooperation and collaboration with developers, governments and public health providers, we hope to harness the power of technology to help countries around the world slow the spread of COVID-19 and accelerate the return of everyday life.”
The debate thus far around phone tracking and contact tracing has been on the shift from aggregated, anonymized datasets to the individuals below. This has been seen as a step too far, albeit that’s exactly how China effected its strict quarantine and lockdown regime and some similar measures have been touted elsewhere. The question here will be the ways in which Apple and Google can push out a platform that protects privacy and keeps our data away from prying eyes. At which point we will be left with the same old question—do you trust big tech more or less than your government when it comes to safeguarding your interests.
The platform itself will be stitched into the local health system to confirm diagnoses and provide the right course of action for those potentially infected. Beyond that, there are some concerns over the accuracy of the tech—not all Bluetooth systems are the same, and how they operate in different places can vary. But the main question is whether a voluntary system can summon the sheer numbers of people necessary to make it work. The risk here is that those worried about becoming infected will sign up—likely older or less healthy individuals. Younger citizens, though, may be less compliant. And if that happens it’s a real issue.