A standoff over contact tracing privacy between Germany and France, the two largest nations in the European Union, and Silicon Valley escalated on Friday as Apple and Google rebuffed demands by the countries to back their approach to using smartphone technology to contact-trace coronavirus infections.
A rift has opened up between countries led by France and Germany that want to hold personal data on a central server, and others that back a decentralized approach in which Bluetooth logs are stored on individual devices.
Apple and Alphabet’s Google, whose operating systems run 99% of smartphones, have promised tweaks in May that would accommodate the decentralized approach. A trial version is due out next week…
Although Bluetooth-based smartphone contact tracing is an untested technology and early results in countries like Singapore are modest, its development is already redefining the relationship between the state and individual.
Reversing a debate that normally pits privacy-conscious Europeans against a data-hungry U.S.-tech industry, it is Apple that has refused to allow Bluetooth monitoring of other devices to run in the background on its iPhones. Such monitoring would open the way to greater state surveillance, say privacy experts.
That creates a problem for France and Germany as now, for their apps to work, a phone would need to be unlocked and have Bluetooth running in the foreground – a drain on the battery and an inconvenience for the user.
Senior executives from Apple and Google said on Friday that they had jointly designed tools with the express goal of supporting decentralized contact-tracing apps they say provide the best privacy protection to users.
“Those privacy principles are not going to change,” Gary Davis, Apple’s global director of privacy and law enforcement requests, told a webinar hosted by the liberal Renew faction in the European Parliament.
“They are fundamental minimum privacy principles that are needed to make this work.”
MacDailyNews Take: It’s not going to work anyway, but at least let’s attempt to preserve privacy while we hand out contact-tracing apps like pacifiers.
We know Apple and Google, like most everyone else, want to “do something,” but even Singapore, where people follow the rules, has a COVID-19 contact-tracing app which has been installed by just 12% of the population). That’s at least 48% short of the lowest threshold for “digital herd immunity.” In Singapore, no less.
No matter how well-designed the system is on paper, in practice too few people will install and use it*, while reliance on Bluetooth connectivity (range, materials penetrance, public transport, etc.) will result in myriad false positive issues.
This seems like something designed to provide a digital security blanket to help increase confidence for going back to work more than anything else.
*In the U.S., beyond the obvious constitutional rights issues, 18% of the U.S. population, or 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 a useful, working system. Contact-tracing apps are nothing more than pablum for the masses.