By: Drew Sorrell
In an effort to battle COVID-19, Google and Apple have announced an agreement to roll-out an API (essentially a software platform on which to develop an application or “App”) to allow the creation of Apps that can track people via the Bluetooth low energy functionality of both their Android and iPhones. The point of the software is to permit tracing and analysis of persons who become infected with COVID-19, and also those that come in to contact with them.
Because the Apps will use Bluetooth as the motive force behind the App rather than the GPS function, physical location—a privacy concern—theoretically will not be compromised. Rather the smartphones of persons who voluntarily download an App developed from the API will communicate with each other via Bluetooth creating a digital trail of contacts.
If a person with the App becomes ill, the individual may self-report via the App, which will then notify others who have come in contact with the infected individual so that appropriate precautions can be taken. The software would likewise permit medical data analysis of the spread of the virus.
From a privacy perspective, the API/Apps are expected to anonymize user information by tracking the fact of contact with a person rather than the identity of a person. Such anonymization coupled with the opt-in nature should ameliorate “first step” privacy questions; however, the details will remain important.
Early reports suggest that the Apps will need a government champion to move the initiative forward as well as to guide and direct the development of the software so that the most useful data from a public health perspective is collected. At this point, no United States governmental agency has announced its intention to champion the effort.
A similar technology deployed in Singapore met with some success, but only achieved a 12% adoption rate. To be most effective, widespread adoption coupled with actual testing for COVID-19 is necessary.
Android and Apple have announced plans eventually to incorporate a contact tracing mechanism directly into their operating systems for the same purpose as the API/App, but it will take longer to roll out than the API/App. Such development will bear close watching from a privacy perspective.
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