On Friday, Apple and Google announced their intent to build a contact tracing tool that will work to ‘track’ the coronavirus; helping to alert users about any potential exposure to the virus.
The tool the two companies intend to create would be apps (for both IPhone and Android) that would utilize Bluetooth wireless technology to track people that may have been infected by coronavirus carriers. But while the new tools could bring hope for a quicker end to the pandemic, there are a variety of privacy and security concerns involved that could more than violate a constitutional right or two.
The tool will work by using Bluetooth LE signals for contact tracing. What this means is that when two people come near each other, their phones will exchange an anonymous identification key; recording their close encounter. If one person later reports coronavirus symptoms/diagnosis to a public health authority, that information can be shared with the app; allowing the system to then notify all users they’ve been in close contact with so that individuals can self-quarantine if necessary. In order to receive notifications, individuals will need to install the app and agree to share data with public health authorities.
Privacy and civil liberties activist have already expressed concern; warning that any such app would need to be designed so that governments (or anyone with access for that matter) cannot abuse the data to track citizens.
The current technical specifications Apple and Google released are somewhat reassuring. The current plan outlines a system built on anonymity throughout the process; with no database regarding who has the virus, and whom they’ve come into contact with, being created. The information will instead be stored temporarily using cryptographic keys that refresh on a consistent basis. The concerning issue is the plan Apple and Google have to build this software directly into all of their phones, circumventing the need to download an app.
So how would this all work in theory?
Let’s say Joe and Jerry end up next to each other while taking the subway. If they’ve both have installed the app Google and Apple have been working on, their phones will automatically exchange tracing keys. Now, a few days later Joe finds out he has the virus and updates the app with that information. The app would then send an alert to everyone who Joes phone had exchanged keys with in the last 14 days. Since Jerry was one of these people, they would receive a notification that will include information about what they should do next; such as going to get tested.
Similar apps have already been created in other countries such as Singapore and China, and are in development throughout various EU countries, though its yet to be known how effective they’ve been so far.