Tracking has always been a concern to us when it comes to our internet and particularly phone usage. An example of borderline misusage is how and why ads manage to follow us around on the internet.
That said, there are some good use cases for large scale surveillance and tracking of the largest tech companies out there, especially when they decide to come together. Recently, Apple and Google decided to turn all iPhones and Androids into a COVID-19 tracking device, allowing your phone to log whenever you’ve come into close contact with other people. If one of those people later reports Covid-19 symptoms to a public health authority, your phone would send you an alert.
It’s similar to how you would exchange contact information with people you meet, except everything is designed to be anonymous and automatic. There is, therefore, no need to activate anything on your Android or iPhone. Your phone will occasionally exchange anonymized tracing keys with nearby devices. Both devices maintain a list of the keys they’ve collected, and when one person reports an infection, they have the option of sending an alert to people they’ve recently been in contact with. That alert will share information for what those people should do next.
Built on open APIs
An important thing to understand about this system is that Apple and Google aren’t doing this by themselves. The two companies are building a set of tools, known as an application programming interface (API), that lets iOS and Android apps communicate with each other.
In the first phase of the tracking tool’s release will start around mid-May, where Google and Apple will release the APIs so that public health authorities can then build apps that will be publicly available in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. People can choose to download those apps and report on any Covid-19 symptoms, letting iPhones and Android phones around the world talk to each other.
The tracking tool’s second phase will roll out over the next several months. Apple and Google plan to build contact-tracing functionality into the operating systems of their phones, which could be a red flag for those of us concerned about being tracked without their consent. As the New York Times points out, by building the tool directly into the operating system, Apple and Google effectively ensure that the contact-tracing system can run 24 hours a day, rather than only when a particular app is open.
User data kept anonymous
To protect users’ privacy, Apple and Google guarantee that they will build this system while keeping people’s identities anonymous. They underline that they won’t build a database of who has Covid-19 and whom they’ve been in contact with. Instead, Apple and Google intend to store that information in temporary, anonymous cryptographic keys that refresh every 15 minutes. Ignoring the “temporary” part, this sounds a lot like what blockchain is achieving with data storage. Meanwhile, all participation in contact tracing will be opt-in, and both Apple and Google say they plan to release regular reports on the program’s progress.
So, how could it work?
Apple and Google mapped out a hypothetical scenario that does a good job of explaining the broad strokes of the contact-tracing process in their press release. It involves two people named Alice and Bob:
As simple as these drawings appear, they represent a complicated marriage between technology, design and user behaviour. That doesn’t mean that the contact-tracing system won’t work, there are just an unknown number of caveats that will come with to realize the potential laid out.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about how the Apple-Google tool will work in practice. We’ll learn more in the weeks to come, after the companies roll out the APIs and public health authorities start releasing contact-tracing apps. Regardless of potential downsides, this tool represents one of the most ambitious private-public partnerships in recent history, by two of the largest tech companies in history. It’s the beginning of a new future where tech companies are injecting their resources into a public health crisis, not only leveraging their capabilities in tremendous new ways, but also raising questions about how this power will change society for years to come.