States Claim Google and Apple’s Contact Tracing Inadequate

By Chand Bellur

April 25, 2020 at 7:03 p.m. PT

  • Google and Apple partnered up to deliver Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to assist with contact tracing apps.
  • The technology uses Bluetooth, not GPS, to determine contact with the infected.
  • Some states say that GPS data are essential to determine where contact with the infected has taken place.

Apple and Google Partner on Contact Tracing Technology

Apple and Google are both allies and competitors. Steve Jobs famously vowed to go “thermonuclear” on Google for copying the iPhone operating system. Apple’s revenge never occurred, however. Furthermore, Google relies on Apple for Macintosh computers, as the Mountain View search giant has grown weary of Microsoft Windows machines. The vast majority of Google employees use Macs.

Although both companies have mended fences since Steve Jobs’ passing, the novel coronavirus pandemic forced both of them to work together. There are two competing mobile operating systems in the market, necessitating combined efforts. Fragmentation is still an issue on the Android side, as almost ten percent of their users run operating systems too old to function with the new contact tracing APIs.

Ultimately, apps must be developed, which use these APIs. This is another area where Android developers will have to write off a segment of their user base, due to fragmentation. Contact tracing that’s inoperable with a significant percentage of smartphones already faces problems. Now, some states are coming forward, expressing the need for GPS data.

States Ask Apple and Google for GPS Data

Apple’s commitment to privacy is fervent; however, Google’s business model relies on knowing everything about the end-user. Regardless of differing privacy practices, both corporations have rejected the use of GPS data in their contact tracing APIs.

North and South Dakota, along with Utah, have begun work on contact tracing solutions. Although they’re using Apple and Google’s joint APIs, they have raised some issues with the technology. First and foremost, the solutions don’t provide adequate information for contact tracing. The APIs can only inform the infected’s contacts of possible exposure. The contact location is unknown, which is antithetical to public health requirements.

Without GPS data, health authorities cannot determine COVID-19 hotspots. With all the other deficiencies in the technology, it appears as though it won’t be abundantly helpful. Both Apple and Google have remained silent about GPS data gathering.

Privacy vs. Public Good

Consumer relations is the main reason why Apple and Google are reticent to record GPS data. The fear is that consumers will be upset about location tracking. Privacy has come front and center with regard to technology. Although Facebook has done the most to compromise end-user confidentiality, virtually every tech corporation must change their practices.

The renewed concern over privacy comes at an inopportune moment. The SARS-CoV-2 virus doesn’t obey privacy laws. It’s highly contagious, and high contact areas need to be cleaned, disinfected, or possibly shuttered.

There is a possible solution. Keeping the GPS data of individual users private, Apple and Google can produce GPS data of where contacts have occurred, providing these to public health authorities. Even HIPAA allows for such geographic tracking, as the end-users’ medical histories are not exposed.

The problem is partly one of perception, not law or public policy. The two tech titans worry that offering GPS data is a slippery slope that consumers will reject. Apple and Google, however, are the mobile duopoly. Consumers can’t jump from one brand to the other, over privacy concerns. Are they going to stop using smartphones altogether?

The real issue is that smartphone users may decide to forgo installation of contact tracing technology over privacy concerns. Without widespread adoption, contact tracing is useless. All of the time spent developing these apps was for naught.

Technology is a Tool

The moral of the story is that technology is a tool, not a panacea. Many Americans are wary of government solutions, believing that only private enterprise can save the day. The contact tracing debacle is a perfect example of how corporations can’t fix everything.

Other nations have hired hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers to execute contact tracing. These are real people who go out in the field, much like detectives. We know this works, as most outbreaks reach containment using this strategy. Such efforts also create hundreds of thousands of jobs, which we could use at this point.

Google and Apple have garnered publicity with the move. There’s also a willing commitment to help the public. Some of it is altruistic; however, sick, unemployed, and deceased customers can’t buy new smartphones.

Realistically, the best solution would be to provide technology for healthcare workers in the field. It’s these workers, doing hands-on contact tracing, that will end the pandemic. Apple and Google’s solution would work well in China; however, even they have opted for boots on the ground. Between fragmentation and privacy concerns, this project seems less useful than initially anticipated.

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