EU welcomes Apple-Google contact-tracing tech

Technologists in the EU and elsewhere are focusing on contact-tracing as they race to try to use Bluetooth short-range communications between devices as a proxy for measuring the risk that a person infected with the coronavirus can pass it on.

EU contact-tracing. Apple and Google team on cross-platform COVID-19 contact tracing tool

Apple Google COVID. Apple and Google team on cross-platform COVID-19 contact tracing tool
Apple and Google team on cross-platform COVID-19 contact tracing tool. Click for larger view (Source: Apple and Google)

Douglas Busvine for Reuters:

Apple and Alphabet’s Google said last week that they would launch tools to support such applications in May, with full integration of Bluetooth contact tracing functions into their operating systems to follow.

Chris Boos, who is championing the Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) technology platform, says this can help shorten the path to deployment.

But a divide has opened up between supporters of decentralized systems – including Apple and Google – and advocates of a centralised approach in which sensitive data is held on a server. The latter includes some governments, raising concerns that they could put citizens under surveillance…

No decision has yet been made, however, to endorse an official contact-tracing app to run on PEPP-PT that experts say here would need to be downloaded by at least 60% of the population to help achieve so-called digital herd immunity.

MacDailyNews Take: Bluetooth works right through drywall. A person sitting on a sofa in one apartment would look like they were sitting near another person in an adjacent apartment.

What about public transport or any of the myriad ways people will be in Bluetooth range for the 10-minute period or whatever arbitrary time limit is implemented? (The virus could transmit in a second given a good unprotected cough; it doesn’t need 10 minutes.)

As we wrote yesterday, specifically in regard to the U.S., but the problems with the system’s ineffectiveness are universal and apply to EU contact-tracing, too:

Listen, we know Apple and Google, like most everyone else, want to “do something,” but the companies shouldn’t waste their time on “solutions” that are destined to fail. Go source or make some more N95 masks and make them available inexpensively to people who have to go out and work for the next 12-18 months before a vaccine is available. That would be a lot more effective. The only thing this effort will have any positive impact on is PR for Apple and Google (unless, of course, nothing of substance comes from it or it results in a lot of useless false positive contacts, damaging Apple’s and Google’s brands).

Apple and Google can address questions until the cows come home, but [here in the U.S.] we’re not going to be installing any apps that use this proposed system, due to the Google connection, of course, but also, first and foremost, because it simply won’t work anyway for reasons (beyond the intractable Bluetooth-drywall issue) that we explained [Tuesday] morning:

The problem with any COVID-19 contact-tracing tech in the U.S. is obvious, it wouldn’t work very well unless almost everyone used it, but U.S. citizens cannot be compelled to install a tracking app. So, such an app would have to be opt-in and nobody in their right mind trusts Google, much less the U.S. government, to handle lightly anonymized tracking data or to ever turn off collection or delete the data post-vaccine, Therefore, opt-in rates for a contact-tracing app would be suboptimal, if not dismal, resulting in ineffective COVID-19 contact-tracing.

Beware COVID-19 tracking: Emergency powers can outlive their emergencies.

If the government tries to make having such an app active as a requirement for working, or even moving about freely, they’d very likely have very poor legal outcome in the United States.

No location data is truly anonymized. It can be cross-matched with other publicly-available data to identify and track individuals. The idea of any government requiring cellphone tracking to monitor its citizens’ movements, regardless of the reason, is chilling. — MacDailyNews, April 2, 2020

Further, beyond the obvious constitutional rights issues, 18% of the U.S. population, nearly 1-in-5 people, do not even have a smartphone. So, with one of every 5th person roaming about by default, not to mention all of the opt-outs, contact-tracing via iOS and Android smartphones would be more of a feel-good security blanket than anything else.

Smartphone penetration in Western Europe is even worse at
around 70%. So, 30% in Western Europe don’t even have a smartphone to participate in EU contact-tracing. And that’s before you factor in non-compliance. “Digital herd immunity” is a nice idea, until every third person with whom you come in contact is a potential, untraceable COVID-19 carrier.

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. — Benjamin Franklin

Lastly, Apple should be careful here. Google has an awful reputation regarding user privacy. Apple must be wary of tarnishing (or destroying) the reputation for user privacy that they’ve carefully built over many years with a system that not only involves Google, of all companies, but that also has a slew of obvious privacy issues.MacDailyNews, April 13, 2020

10 Comments

  1. I could not disagree more with this assessment. I always go back to the Peter Drucker quote – “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” Combined with mass testing, contact tracing is a key tool to assess how pervasive COVID-19 is in a population. Only with that information can we properly manager health care resources and outbreaks.

    I find it odd that an Apple blog (and alleged fan of Apple who runs this site) would think that Apple would participate in an endeavor of this magnitude without considering the privacy ramifications. Apple is the company that has defied the government on numerous times occasions to grant backdoors into encryption and I am confident privacy will be at the forefront of any contact tracing solution developed with Google.

    We have two choices – stay at home until a vaccine is developed or initiate mass testing and contact tracing to limit outbreaks. The time estimate for a vaccine is 12-18 months at best, which puts us somewhere in 2021. The way to reopen society is to continuously measure the infected and manage outbreaks to keep them at a minimum.

    South Korea successfully implemented contact tracing right from the beginning and has managed this pandemic far more successfully than the United States. We should follow South Korea’s example and implement similar measures.

    I highly recommend reading Derek Thompson’s Atlantic article on this subject:

    https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/contact-tracing-could-free-america-from-its-quarantine-nightmare/609577/

    It concludes with this quote:

    “I am a privacy advocate, but I don’t hold privacy as an absolute value. Privacy has to be balanced in context with other human rights. Life and health, I think, are important human rights.”

    Human health is a more important right than privacy. I don’t think anyone wants on their tombstone, “I may be dead, but at least I died with my privacy intact.”

    1. MacDailyNews seems more concerned with efficacy than privacy. They are right to be concerned. In the U.S., the usage of this app will be by a minority of people, given that 1-in 5 do not even have smartphone and a very significant portion of those who do have smartphones will not even download it, much less opt-in.

      Bluetooth goes thru wallboard. That alone means it will not work in apartment buildings – unless the app also tracks your location in order to disable contract-tracing in those buildings. If it does so, valid contacts in an apartment or hallway won’t be recorded. Also, if it does so, privacy will be of great concern.

      I could go on and on. There are so many problems that MDN is right to conclude that this effort will result in nothing more than “a feel-good security blanket.”

      The powers that be will sell the app as “you’re safe if you have the app and opt-in.” In reality, that will not be true. It’s a pacifier.

      1. If you are concerned about the efficacy of this technology, then how has SK used it so effectively to manage COVID-19 outbreaks? We haven’t even seen the solution and you are writing this off as being completely useless. Certainly if this does go live and turns out to be a dud, it will be easy to dismiss.

        Measuring 80% of the population is better than measuring 0% of the population and there are other ways to get that 20% included – might be a non-smartphone device that people carry on them.

        If you’re satisfied with the current situation, then by all means let’s do nothing and accept our lives as they are – with our health care system on the brink of utterly cracking even while maintaining social distancing. I choose to support initiatives that will help manage the pandemic and allow us to get some level of normalcy.

        And if you are truly concerned about privacy (OP), then you shouldn’t carry an iPhone or an Android device ever. You are deluding yourself if you think you have privacy while carrying the most effective tracking device known to man.

            1. So, I assume you understand that U.S. citizens cannot be forced to install and run such an app.

              With that established, you’re either dreaming or high if you think 80% of the U.S. population is going to download and opt into a COVID contact tracing app. You’d be lucky to see half that, unless the U.S. Feds plan on paying people to participate. Even then, you’ll never get to 80% and, regardless, the Bluetooth issues and false positives are going to render the thing useless.

            2. So I am neither dreaming nor high. I am a concerned and informed citizen. If drastic action is not taken, we will continue to see a high rate of infections and hospitalizations that will exceed the capacity of the US health care system.

              This country has mobilized many times in the past to overcome common problems and unfortunately, depending on a factual message from the executive branch is not available. I do think citizens could be compelled to participate in this program through messaging from various scientists and health officials, such a Dr. Fauci, if the benefits of participation are clearly presented.

              And we don’t need a 100% install base for this to work; this is effective at a 60% install base.

              Again, when you say uninformed statements like this “the Bluetooth issues and false positives are going to render the thing useless” – YOU HAVEN’T EVEN SEEN THE SOLUTION WORKING. Contact tracing is very effective in SK and can be just as effective here.

              • It’s good to have hope, but this “system” is convoluted, with all kinds of time elapsing (allowing for virus transmission to continue).
              • The U.S. is not South Korea. The cultures are wildly disparate.
              • This will not come close to 60% penetration in the U.S.
  2. Again, you don’t want to answer the question.

    “It’s good to have hope, but this “system” is convoluted, with all kinds of time elapsing (allowing for virus transmission to continue)”

    If South Korea can do this, why can’t the United States? You say the cultures are wildly disparate. Are you suggesting that the United States is inept? Unable/unwilling to do perform contact tracing? Relegated to a second tier among nations who are far more nimble and able to handle pandemics?

    Maybe that BS American exceptionalism is on full display here.

    Another informative article from the Atlantic which presumably you won’t read because it’s so much easier to choose ignorance:

    https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/03/how-will-coronavirus-end/608719/

    “To contain such a pathogen, nations must develop a test and use it to identify infected people, isolate them, and trace those they’ve had contact with. That is what South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong did to tremendous effect. It is what the United States did not.”

Reader Feedback

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.