Apple and Alphabet’s Google announced that they would ban any coronavirus tracing apps that use location tracking, which will make things difficult for several governments which want these apps to feature location tracking.
No external data
Contact tracing apps are the next big hurdle in our fight against COVID-19 — not that we’ve already solved everything else, but in general terms, we know what needs to be done in terms of social distancing and increasing hospital capacity (though whether or not that will actually get done is a different question). Contact tracing apps are essentially a way of notifying people when they’ve been around someone who has COVID-19, and most experts consider this a crucial tool in returning society to a quasi-normal state amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But there’s a catch. Aside from technological hurdles (which are not trivial), there are big privacy concerns. Most authorities want these types of apps to also track user location. It makes a lot of sense epidemiologically — it’s worth knowing where the infection hotspots are and who the potential superspreaders may be. But both Apple and Google have announced that that’s a big no-no.
The companies have stressed that privacy is a major concern, and any apps sold on their platforms will prevent governments from using the system to compile data on citizens.
In other words, they won’t allow any centralized contact tracing apps — nothing that can send data to an external, central server. But that’s not the only thing the tech giants want.
The Apple and Google Rules
The two fierce competitors have teamed up to produce their own contact tracing app. While they will also allow other contact tracing apps on the market, these apps need to follow a set of rules, Apple and Google announced. These guidelines include:
- only health authorities can create contact tracing apps;
- all apps must get user consent before sending notification;
- a second consent will be required before sharing positive test results and diagnosis with health authorities;
- all data collection must be minimized and used only for health purposes — it cannot be used for advertising or policing.
It’s like Bizarro world. Just a few months ago, we were riled up in the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal and many were hoping that governments would introduce legislation to protect user data from big tech companies. Now, the tables have turned, and in this case, it’s the companies that want to limit the surveillance data that governments have access to as much as possible.
Of course, it’s a completely different scenario, and there are justified reasons why health organizations and government would want as much data as possible — but there’s little to guarantee how this data will be used.
Already, there have been some clashes between governments and tech giants, as several US officials have expressed displeasure at Apple and Google’s approach to disallowing location tracking. Germany initially wanted to develop its own such app but caved in the face of mounting public pressure demanding stricter privacy settings, and the country will now work with Google’s solution. In the UK, a separate national app is being developed, amid intense criticism for both its usefulness and legality.
While several national apps are in development or already developed, the Apple-Google one will likely be the largest and most significant globally. The two companies cover 99% of the smartphone market, and the app could work internationally without any problems — whereas national apps can’t really communicate with one another when you’re abroad. It will likely be the make-or-break for contact tracing apps.
It might also be the make-or-break of our future smartphone privacy.