Apple Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google earlier this month unveiled an ambitious plan to jury-rig billions of smartphones into coronavirus-tracking beacons, hoping to help public-health authorities fight the disease and pave the way to end lockdowns that have crippled the global economy.
Now, just weeks after the announcement, the programme is already facing serious challenges and it’s unclear whether the system will ever be used at a large scale. Persistent concerns about privacy, weak consumer adoption, and the lack of a coordinated government effort on testing could all pose obstacles to the companies’ push. Some governments have already struck out on their own, building systems used by millions without needing Apple and Google’s help.
The tech giants’ plan involves updating the software on billions of phones so consumers can use wireless technology to track who they come into contact with. If a person notifies the system that they have Covid-19, people who have been near them – based on their device’s proximity to others – would get an alert saying they may be at risk. The plan removes technical problems around interoperability and battery life that were plaguing efforts to build such apps before.
It’s one of the most ambitious approaches yet to what’s known as digital contact tracing, a way of using technology to supplement existing systems, which involve health workers manually tracking the disease’s spread. Doctors and other health professionals say that a robust system for keeping tabs on exposure to infected individuals is essential to prevent a resurgence of the pandemic.
On April 29, the two companies launched updates that will let select developers begin building apps using the tools. A second phase of the project, to be released in the coming months, will have deeper integration with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems to rely less on apps.
The partnership is unprecedented. Apple and Google are bitter business rivals, and have fought for years to outmaneuver each other in the industries they compete directly in, such as phones and Internet browsers, as well as in areas that will unlock the technology of the future, like artificial intelligence. Together, the companies’ phones are used by about a third of the world’s population.
In addition to coming together on this project, both companies have donated money and put resources toward other coronavirus-combating initiatives. But the problem may be too big even for the vaunted leaders of the tech industry to conquer.
"App-based contact tracing is something that has never worked, ” said Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering at the University of Cambridge computer science department in Britain. "It’s a straw that some people are grasping at out of do-something-itis.”
Anderson likens the rush to work on contact tracing as similar to other hype-induced tech trends, like artificial intelligence or Bitcoin. It’s worth pointing out that Apple and Google have been eyeing the health-care industry for years, slowly experimenting with ways to push deeper into the lucrative field. Often, they’ve been met with scepticism and questions about privacy safeguards. Winning goodwill with coronavirus projects could help the companies sell health software or devices down the road.
But even if you take a less cynical view, there’s only so much Apple and Google can do to help solve the problem. Contact tracing can only ever be part of a broader system that demands intensive and regular testing, something the United States so far hasn’t been able to accomplish.
Testing for Covid-19 needs to become much more accessible so people can know whether they have contracted the disease before they can consider telling an app they’ve got the virus. Even if the Apple-Google system preserves privacy, works accurately and is adopted by enough people, it has to be combined with frequent and widespread testing, as well as expensive manual contact tracing, said Daniel Kahn Gillmor, a senior staff technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, who focuses on privacy and technology.
And many countries are far behind on testing. In the United States testing ramped up from essentially zero at the beginning of March to 150,000 a day in the first week of April, but it’s since plateaued at around 200,000. Earlier this week, drug retailers such as CVS Health Corp, Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc and Walmart Inc said they would ramp up testing in store parking lots, potentially adding millions of new tests a month. Still, these testing operations are at an early stage, and so far have been confusing to patients and other customers.
Experts say at least 500,000 tests will need to be done every day to make it safe to allow people to return to work and get the economy moving again. Some say the number is even higher, in the millions.
Testing efforts are still beset by supply shortages and coordination issues, and governors including New York’s Andrew Cuomo have accused the federal government of dragging its feet. (Michael Bloomberg, owner of Bloomberg LP, is leading a push in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to expand testing and contact tracing.)
The potential of contact-tracing apps has been overestimated in an atmosphere where people are desperate for solutions, a trio of tech, legal and disease experts wrote in an article for the Brookings Institution think tank on April 27.
"We have serious doubts that voluntary, anonymous contact tracing through smartphone apps – as Apple, Google, and faculty at a number of academic institutions all propose – can free Americans of the terrible choice between staying home or risking exposure, ” the researchers said.
Another hurdle is trust – convincing people that their data won’t be hacked or used for other purposes if they opt into the system. Google, Apple and the other tech giants have faced intense scrutiny in recent years over how they use the data they collect. Health data is especially sensitive, given how personal it is.
Apple and Google have gone to great lengths to stress that their proposed contact-tracing technology, which last week they dubbed Exposure Notification, is secure. Privacy experts generally support the method, which uses constantly-changing ID codes and stores information on each individual’s phone instead of a centralised cloud that could be hacked. Still, many consumers are wary of sharing information with tech companies after high-profile data breaches in the last several years. In an update to their original announcement, the companies said they’d made the system even more secure, encrypting the Bluetooth signals that emanate from each person’s phone.
But some governments are saying Apple and Google’s plan is too private to be useful. Britain, which initially said it would work with "the world’s leading tech companies” to build a contact-tracing app, has now rejected Apple and Google. Storing the information centrally helps health authorities track the virus’ spread and move proactively to contain it. The tech giants’ system doesn’t allow for centralisation, and only serves to tell individual people whether they’ve come into contact with someone who has the disease. That’s not as useful for officials who want a big-picture idea of what’s happening with the pandemic.
Beyond the British system, there are a variety of other apps being deployed without Apple and Google’s help. The French government wants to launch its own app in early May, and is asking Apple to remove a privacy restriction that would hamper the government’s ability to pull Bluetooth data to its own server.
In Australia, more than two million people have downloaded the country’s app for tracking, according to the country’s government. That’s still short of the 40% of Australia’s 26 million citizens who will need to use it for it to be effective. India’s government said 50 million people were using its own app just 13 days after launch.
Regardless of who’s building the app, getting enough people to participate is a challenge of its own. In Singapore, where a similar local system was in place before Apple and Google announced theirs, too few people downloaded the app to make it effective, and the city-state had to impose a lockdown instead.
A month after Singapore’s app went live, only about a fifth of the country had downloaded it. On April 21, the country’s prime minister urged citizens to get with the programme. "There will be some privacy concerns, but we will have to weigh these against the benefits, ” he said in a televised address. If Singapore – where residents’ technology usage is among the highest in the world and citizens are accustomed to directives from the government – can’t ensure participation, it’s hard to imagine widespread usage happening in the United States.
Making the app mandatory could solve the adoption problem and ensure a large enough network of users to have a meaningful impact, but doing so might foment resistance or undermine trust in the system itself. In order for people to use it, it has to be voluntary, said the ACLU’s Gillmor.
"The moment the systems appear to be punitive or enforced on people, people will move away from them, ” Gillmor said.
Though most Americans seem to be following government guidelines on the virus so far, some are already bristling at the restrictions on movement and rules about wearing masks in public. Small protests have cropped up across the country and conservative media outlets and some politicians have demanded that governments "open up” their economies immediately.
Even a compulsory system that used information from contact tracing to give certain people – those who already had the virus, for example, or those whom the app showed hadn’t been in contact with anyone positive – more freedom to move around while limiting others would also be unfair, because it would be biased toward people with access to phones with a working Bluetooth signal. Those who couldn’t participate might be left behind completely, Gillmor said.
"If the system is mandatory, that’s going to potentially lock people out who are already fundamentally disadvantaged and already more at risk for Covid-19, ” he said.
There are also questions about whether Bluetooth, the wireless technology that picks up on other phones that come nearby, is accurate enough to ensure meaningful measurements. If there are too many false positives and people are warned to self-quarantine repeatedly but never develop symptoms, they may begin to believe the system isn’t working.
The technological issues, at the least, can be addressed, said Micha Benoliel, co-founder of Nodle, a wireless-tech startup that has developed a contact-tracing app used in the city of Berkeley, California, and run by a nonprofit. Bluetooth is very accurate within distances of six feet, Benoliel said, which is exactly the range such an app would want for this purpose.
"The world is changing – it will never be like it used to be, ” Benoliel said. "If we want to have something close to a normal life, we need to have this kind of tool.” – Bloomberg
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