Apple, Google Make it Easier for States to Adopt Virus Tracing App

September 12, 2020

Google and Apple created an app that would, with the cooperation of state governments, aid in tracing the spread of the coronavirus and notify citizens if they spent time around someone known to have tested positive. It is nice to see these rivals working together for the common good. So far, though, only a few states have adopted the technology. In order to encourage more states to join in, AP News reveals, “Apple, Google Build Virus-Tracing Tech Directly into Phones.” Reporter Matt O’Brien writes:

“Apple and Google are trying to get more U.S. states to adopt their phone-based approach for tracing and curbing the spread of the coronavirus by building more of the necessary technology directly into phone software. That could make it much easier for people to get the tool on their phone even if their local public health agency hasn’t built its own compatible app. The tech giants on Tuesday launched the second phase of their ‘exposure notification’ system, designed to automatically alert people if they might have been exposed to the coronavirus. Until now, only a handful of U.S. states have built pandemic apps using the tech companies’ framework, which has seen somewhat wider adoption in Europe and other parts of the world.”

In states that do adopt the system, iPhone users will be prompted for consent to run it on their phones. Android users will have to download the app, which Google will auto-generate for each public health agency that participates. Early adopters are expected to be Maryland, Nevada, Virginia, and Washington D.C. Virginia was the first to use the framework to launch a customized app in early August, followed by North Dakota, Wyoming, Alabama, and Nevada. O’Brien describes how it works:

“The technology relies on Bluetooth wireless signals to determine whether an individual has spent time near anyone else who has tested positive for the virus. Both people in this scenario must have signed up to use the Google-Apple technology. Instead of geographic location, the app relies on proximity. The companies say the app won’t reveal personal information either to them or public health officials.”

This all sounds helpful. However, the world being what it is today, we must ask: does this have surveillance applications? Perhaps. Note we’re promised the app won’t “reveal” personal data, but will it retain it? If it does, will agencies be able to resist this big, juicy pile of data? Promises about surveillance have a way of being broken, after all.

Cynthia Murrell, September 12, 2020

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