Coronavirus iOS or Android smartphones will exchange information via Bluetooth in order to follow up on individuals who have been close to infected people.
Apple and Google announced Friday a partnership to allow digital tracking of individuals who have been close to people infected by the coronavirus in order to limit the spread of the disease while preserving confidentiality.
“Google and Apple announce a joint effort to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, putting user privacy and security at the heart of the design, “said the two tech giants in a blog post.
Smartphones with iOS software from Apple or Android from Google will be able to exchange information via Bluetooth, in order to monitor human contacts (“contact tracing”) and alert other users.
From May, users of iOS and Android devices will be able to share content from official applications of public health authorities, downloadable from the online stores of the two groups. Apple and Google are planning to develop “a broader contact tracking platform […] that would allow more people to participate if they choose to join.”
The operating systems of the two rival groups are the most used on smartphones across the planet. “Given the urgency of the need, the goal is to implement this solution in two stages while maintaining strong protections to ensure respect for the privacy of users,” promised Apple and Google.
Apple boss Tim Cook and Google boss Sundar Pichai both reacted to the new partnership. “Tracking contacts can help slow the spread of Covid-19 and can be done without compromising the privacy of users,” Tim Cook wrote on Twitter.
Several experts and association were however puzzled about the effectiveness of the new tools from Google and Apple. “It is difficult to know what use they intend to make” of the data obtained, wonders Ryan Calo, researcher at the University of Washington and affiliated with the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford. “If they think digital contact tracking will allow people to stop social distancing, I’m skeptical,” says Ryan Calo. “But if they create a research platform for health authorities, it could be useful,” he adds.
The powerful civil rights organization ACLU welcomed the move, but was concerned about the economic inequalities that it believes this new initiative risks exposing.
“Such contact tracking methods are likely to exclude many vulnerable members of our society who have limited access to technology and who are already disproportionately affected by the pandemic,” warns Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity for the ACLU.
Other experts questioned the use of personal data despite the guarantees of the two companies. “If I imagine that these tools will be offered on a voluntary basis, they will eventually become mandatory once legislators start to rely on them to make decisions such as who can leave their home or who can return to work “, Worries Ashkan Soltani, computer security researcher. “It will create an incredibly dangerous precedent,” he predicts.
But for other specialists, the protective devices are high enough not to give rise to abuse. “Mobile platforms have put in place technical safeguards to mitigate the risks of tracking and re-identification, which seem fairly solid,” said John Verdi of the Future of Privacy Forum.