Recently, Google and Apple announced a collaboration to help combat the spread of the coronavirus pandemic across the world through developing contact tracing tools that will notify smartphone owners if they have come within a 6 feet distance of a Covid-19 infected individual.
The contact tracking app will exchange anonymous tracking keys, unique to every user, with close by devices periodically. The tech giants plan to use Bluetooth, generally used to connect wireless devices to smartphones, to detect other phones in its vicinity, irrespective of whether the phones use iOS or Android software.
The app would maintain a list of devices a person has been in close proximity to by saving their tracking keys. If a user tests positive, they would have to report the diagnoses and submit a medical report as proof, after which their unique tracking key would be saved on a server, which then would send an alert to users the infected individual has been in the vicinity of based on the automated list of keys saved on their phones. The alert will not reveal the identity of the infected individual, but instead inform the vulnerable individuals regarding the next steps they should take.
The use of Bluetooth would be, supposedly, less invasive compared to the alternatives. The apps will be voluntary to download and to be used during the duration of the pandemic only for public health purposes. The contact tracing apps would not track the exact location of the user, or share the information regarding the identity of the individual to the other users, app developers, or governments.
Irrespective of the reassurance that the app would not breach the privacy of its users, the use of such apps raise concerns regarding the privacy of data of its users. The concept of using the location data of the users makes many individuals, including lawmakers wary of such apps which would limit the free use of such apps by the masses and hinder its effectiveness.
Google and Apple expect to make the tools required to make such apps available by mid-May, but the success of the technology in controlling the pandemic would be highly dependent on the time consumed by public health officials to develop these apps, and how widely & regularly they are used.
Though this technology may not be overtly effective as people may resist its use, employing such techniques would help limit the spread of the virus and allow people to resume economic activities.
Furthermore, Facebook has attempted to track the potential spread of the virus by using the social data of its users. Google has also released data pertaining to the travel habits of smartphone users in 131 countries to help track the spread of the pandemic. Other companies, including Apple have presented symptom checkers that would help people check whether or not they need medical care.