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15th April 2020

Google and Apple’s covid tracking software could see reduction in cases

Data about your location could be used by tech giants to trace and slow the spread of Covid-19
Google and Apple’s covid tracking software could see reduction in cases
Photo: picjumbo @pexels

A new collaboration between tech giants Apple and Google could see a reduction in cases of coronavirus through Bluetooth tracking interactions on your smartphone.

With the UK passing 12,000 hospital deaths from Covid-19, the two major tech companies have teamed up to produce a tracking software for the iOs and Android operating systems directly aimed at  monitoring those who have the symptoms of the virus. 

The software was developed in the hope of helping reduce the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the NHS by allowing health authorities to notify those who have been in contact with the virus and must self-isolate to halt the spread.

There has been a great deal of controversy over Google using GPS data to track our location in the past, however, if this new feature could reduce the strain on the NHS and aid civilians to know whether to self isolate, should we be supporting its development? 

A first launch of this type of programme was used in China, known as a ‘close contact detector’ application. This was more successful due to phones being pre-programmed with tracking software through national codes ingrained in all smartphones sold in the country. 

This extremely close surveillance on Chinese citizens has allowed people to see if they have been in close contact with a carrier of the virus, therefore showing hotspot zones across the country. However, it has been stated by lawyers that such a system can only work if there is complete transparency and consent is given. 

Piper Carolyn Bigg, a Hong Kong-based technology lawyer at the law firm DLA described the positives of  contact tracing software: “From a Chinese perspective this is a really useful service for people […] It’s a really powerful tool that really shows the power of data being used for good.”

In the UK, a number of applications related to Coronavirus have been adapted recently – for example the NHS Responders app that is currently being used for local volunteers to help those who are vulnerable in their area. This application heavily relies on the user having their location on the ‘Always’ setting as responders closest to the person in need are able to help quickest.  

However, the most recent update in surveillance in the UK means that Google and Apple, already notorious for using and distorting the data they collect, are more accurately and frequently monitoring our movements than ever before. 

This collaboration between the two companies ensures that ‘contact-tracing’ apps can be used on both Android and Apple devices relying on Bluetooth data to monitor who the individual has been in contact with each day and alert them if they have been in a high risk area. 

Jennifer Granick, the surveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the ACLU believes that “people will only trust these systems if they protect privacy, remain voluntary, and store data on an individual’s device, not a centralised repository.”

But how does the system actually work? In its simplest form, whilst the programme is running on your device it will periodically alert a unique and anonymous code taken from the phone’s distinctive ID. The phones that your signal comes into contact with are logged building up a personalised database of interactions you have had throughout the day.

If you or another user tests positive or develops symptoms for Covid-19 they can share it on the app to enable those who have been exposed to the carrier to take the correct safety precautions like self-isolating.  So far the signal reaches a 100 metre radius. 

An advanced technology which could let us know if we are at risk or not could be a saviour to hypochondriacs worried about every potential hazard. At present we are unaware of who we have crossed paths with and could suspect the worst from everyone. We have mixed messages from NHS professionals about whether we should be wearing gloves or masks when out for essentials and supermarkets have strict regulations when shopping that in some cases can’t be followed.

But on the other hand, contact tracing could heighten emotions of those already anxious if they have been in a 100 metre radius of a carrier. Even though it is still highly unlikely for the virus to be contracted by someone who has regularly washed their hands and stayed out of the 2 metre range of droplets from coughs and sneezes, it may still be alarming  for a user to receive an alert that they have been near someone with Covid-19.

The issue of privacy can be put in more understandable terms – since University and everything else for that matter has closed, we are having considerably less interactions with others so the list of people your phone would be picking up would be a small list, if not just your household and neighbours.

Matt Hancock has said that all data will be handled according to the highest ethical and security standards and would only be used for NHS care and research, not to be kept for any longer than necessary.  However a professor from the University of Cambridge has said that he feels “uneasy about collecting lots of lightly-anonymised data in a system that becomes integrated into a whole-of-government response to the pandemic. We might never get rid of it.”

Despite the app having the potential to save lives, we still need to be cautious of the data being given out.  However, in an effort to put minds at ease slightly, both companies have released preliminary technical specifications which they called Privacy-Preserving Contact Tracing. 

Other European countries have followed suit and rolled out the application including the Czech  Republic, Germany and one of the worst hit countries; Italy. Yet there has been some delay to this app functioning and it could be that credit cards and public transit records will also need to be monitored to ensure accuracy.

A pre-release version of the software will be rolled out next week in the North West of the UK to families within a secure location.  

At the moment it is too soon to think about how we may be implicated by this. Bluetooth at present is used to share photos, listen to music or connect to other devices, not save lives.

Our smartphones could be doing much more than we realise. Rather than watching endless Tik Tok videos or being glued to the news app, amidst our day-to-day usage we could be using our phones to understand a little more about the pandemic and fight the spread of this virus which has taken over our lives. 

Jess Walmsley

Jess Walmsley

Editor-in-Chief 21/22

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