Analyzing Google & Apple’s Contact-Tracing
What are some of the challenges Google and Apple have to address?
What is Contact Tracing?
Contract Tracing is a fairly common practice of public health responses to a pandemic. It means literally tracking down anyone who has come in close physical contact with anyone that may be carrying the disease.
Remember Ebola? Contact Tracing was central to the fight against the pandemic in 2014/15. There was a large team of people that would track down the relatives and knock on doors of neighbors and friends to find out if any of them were in physical touch with the infected person and this was very effective in isolating the potentially infected individuals to prevent the spread of the disease.
However, as you can tell, contact tracing is very labor intensive as these teams are looking to find out a person’s whereabouts for a duration from 24 hours to up to 2 weeks. It is virtually impossible to track someone as accurately as would be required in such pandemics. So, it is no surprise that technology is coming to the rescue during COVID-19.
Apple and Google’s Contact Tracing App
Apple and Google launched their app this week to enable contact-tracing. iOS and Android operating systems are on over 3 Billion phone devices in the world so it makes sense that the two tech giants are working together to develop a contact-tracing app which when installed on your phone will make it easier to track down people who may have come in contact with a COVID-19 positive person.
How does the app work?
Assuming both John and Jenny have the contact-tracing app installed on their smartphones, this is how the app will work:
- John and Jenny had a short 10 mins conversation in the grocery store. John and Jenny’s phones exchange privacy-preserving anonymous identifiers.
- A few days later, John is diagnosed as positive for COVID-19 and enters it in the App.
- John provides his consent to the App to push the last 14 days of keys for his broadcast beacons to the server.
- Jenny’s phone downloads the positive beacon keys from the server and finds a match with John’s key that was downloaded on Jenny’s phone.
- Jenny’s phone receives a notification that she was in contact with someone who was identified positive for COVID-19 and where she can call for further information. Once alerted, the user can then self-isolate or get tested themselves.
This sounds pretty straightforward in concept but there are a lot of privacy-related concerns and nitty-gritty details that have to be addressed by Apple and Google before the app can be effective during this pandemic.
Challenges that Apple and Google need to resolve to increase adoption
Privacy: Privacy activists around the world have called for a check on how these technologies will work and track the users. There is a big focus on maintaining the balance between civil liberties and public welfare to make sure that the government and the big-tech companies don’t abuse them in the future. Contact tracing through Bluetooth alleviates some of the privacy concerns over some proposed designs that used location data.
Google and Apple stated that the system won’t involve tracking user locations or even collecting any sort of identifying data. Even the identifier “beacon” numbers that are exchanged through Bluetooth technology will change every 15 minutes to prevent anyone from tracing the keys back to a specific individual. However, just using Bluetooth alone won’t assure that the user’s privacy is not violated. A server could also identify COVID-19 users in other ways, such as based on their IP addresses.
Battery/Storage: Currently, Apple limits access to Bluetooth when apps run in the background of iOS. Even if Apple relaxes this restriction for this app, the phones will require the usage of Bluetooth and the app to run 24x7 which will prove to be very draining for the battery on the phones. Also, needless to say, that because these codes are being downloaded on the local phones and the app itself will require a lot of storage on your device. Google and Apple stated that they will soon be rolling out updates on the OS so that the users would not have to download the app and it would reduce these battery and storage concerns.
Hardware Control: While Apple has complete control over its software and hardware, Google’s Android ecosystem is fragmented, and they don’t have full control over the hardware being used by phone makers. This means while Apple can push system-wide changes with relative ease, Google may have to work and negotiate with the phone makers and hardware partners for sign-off to roll out these updates. Google does have a lot of supplier power with these hardware partners and can force its hand if required but any resistance from the hardware partner may result in costly delays and reduce users’ adoption.
False Positives/Negatives: Experts have also raised concerns about the technology itself. Tracing through Bluetooth can cause a lot of false positives which can lead to even larger problems for already strained essential workforces. Bluetooth technology may prove to be ineffective due to social distancing measures. Even if they can track up to 30ft of proximity, for example, you would get a notification even if you were at a safe distance of 6 ft as recommended by the social distancing guidelines. Also, Bluetooth can travel through walls, so there may be false positives when there was a wall between two people or any other physical barrier.
False Negatives can also happen. The infected person may not use the tool or may not have their phone with them when they come near you. Or someone with the virus may sneeze more than 6 feet away from you but it wouldn’t trigger the proximity alert even if you may have been exposed. All the inaccurate data that these false negatives and positives may create could be very costly.
Other Challenges: Other than the abovementioned concerns from users and the regulatory authorities, Apple and Google also have several practical challenges that they are facing.
First, in order for the whole idea to be effective, you need significant adoption and broad willingness to share COVID-19 information for this to work. The latter will be even more difficult to achieve as the positive patients may be required to do some additional steps to report, for instance, requiring a confirmation code from a health care provider to make sure that the system is not overrun with false positives. An Oxford University study estimated that at least 60% of the population will have to use this app to yield significant insights that can prevent the pandemic from worsening.
Second, there may be people who may contract the disease with the virus left on the surface by a COVID-19 positive person and without them being in proximity of the infected person. A spokesperson from Google said that such environmental cases of spread are rare though.
Third, even though Google and Apple have indicated that the apps will be temporary and go away once the pandemic ends, no details have been provided about which features will go away or what qualifies as the end of the pandemic. It is too early for Google and Apple to comment on all these details, but it is an answer anyone with privacy concerns would want.
Fourth, there are billions of people who may not have a smartphone due to low income or any other reason, the contact-tracing using an App will not work for such demographics. Will the contact-tracing app be effective in such cases when only a fraction of the population uses a smartphone in certain rural areas.
Apple and Google have assured that user privacy and trust are at the forefront of their design. It sure seems that using the Bluetooth technology for contact-tracing will alleviate certain privacy concerns, but it definitely isn’t foolproof and can be later exploited by not only Apple and Google but also the government agencies to track individuals.
However, desperate times call for desperate measures and security trumps privacy in such scenarios. I for one wouldn’t mind people tracking my location if it improves my chances of survival by even 5% and prevents community spread.
While this idea from Apple and Google has several concerns and challenges that they have to address before convincing a broad range of users to adopt this and it may take several years for the tech companies to come up with a way to address all the concerns and challenges and still effectively perform contact tracing but I have no doubt in my mind that this is a step in the right direction. It doesn’t matter how effective this app would be during COVID-19 but if such a pandemic happens again through chemical warfare or terrorist activity, we should be in a situation where we can leverage technology to enforce quarantine measures to prevent spread. Worst case scenario, even if the app doesn’t pay dividends during COVID-19, the government and the tech companies would know the areas they need to improve to improve the technology around contact tracing. For now, it seems like the old fashion lockdown and social distancing seem to be the most effective way but hey a little bit of technology doesn’t hurt.