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Apple-Google virus-tracking rules put apps in a privacy bind

Gerrit De Vynck, Natalia Drozdiak and Helene Fouquet, Bloomberg News on

Published in Science & Technology News

From France to Australia to North Dakota, government apps designed to help authorities track and slow the spread of COVID-19 are struggling to accomplish their goals because of restrictions on data collection built into smartphones by Apple Inc. and Google.

That's leaving public health officials with few options but to use a system designed by Apple and Google themselves. The tech companies say their tools preserve privacy and work seamlessly on devices used by some 3 billion people.

Here's the rub: Those same privacy features lock authorities out of collecting information they can use to track the broader spread of virus, spot larger patterns and plan reopenings.

"The exposure app gives you an indication that you've been in contact with someone that was positive, but it doesn't do anything for the health department and its contact-tracing efforts," said Vern Dosch, a former technologist who is helping run contact tracing efforts for the state of North Dakota.

Apple and Google even renamed their framework Exposure Notification, signaling that it doesn't do true contact tracing, the process of tracking a virus from person to person. Instead, it lets individual smartphones keep track of which other handsets they've come close to by using Bluetooth wireless signals. If a person notifies the network they have tested positive for COVID-19, everyone they could have infected is issued a warning, if they've opted in.

The system does this matching anonymously on each device, rather than in a central database that governments could use to track the disease more broadly -- a feature the companies say is more secure and helps quell user concerns about who sees their sensitive health data.

 

At the same time, the companies are refusing to ease restrictions in their mobile software that are blocking governments from building their own centralized, less private apps for contact tracing. That could blow back on the tech giants, who are already under scrutiny for antitrust violations and other business practices that critics say give them too much power.

"Apple could have helped us make it work even better," Cedric O, France's digital minister, said in a television interview last week, referring to the country's COVID-19 tracking app, set to launch in June. "A company that has never been in a better economic shape is not helping the government to fight the crisis. We will remember that."

Some countries have tried to find technical workarounds, but few governments have had success in building a working app without following Apple and Google's rules. Places that already have an app that uses location or sends data to a central server will not be allowed to update it with the tech giants' tools. That's forced North Dakota to build a second app on top of the one it already has.

"We pleaded our case with them, both Apple and Google," Dosch said -- but the answer was no.

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