Government officials from France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal called on companies, without naming Google and Apple, to effectively relax rules regarding the development of apps during the crisis.
“In a time like this, when the use of technology is critical to fight this global crisis, as governments, we expect the technology companies to take into account the countries’ overall well being and needs when setting digital standards,” they wrote. They said digital technologies used to fight the coronavirus should be designed and evaluated by democratically elected governments.
“Questioning this right by imposing technical standards represents a misstep and a missed opportunity to further an open collaboration between Governments and the private sector,” they wrote.
The governments were joined this week by a group of 27 doctors and researchers who published a report, led by Johns Hopkins University, that suggested technology companies should not “control the terms, conditions or capabilities” of digital contact tracing. Public health officials have also urged Apple and Google to allow more access to smartphone operating systems for the purposes of contact tracing.
Many governments and other entities have been working to develop apps to help track the spread of the coronavirus. Those apps use hardware tools such as Bluetooth and GPS to keep track of a person’s whereabouts. If a person tests positive, public health officials can ask the patient for access to the data so they can trace where the disease might have spread. When it comes to smartphones, Apple and Google oversee the vast majority of the software through the iOS and Android operating systems.
Countries and other entities developing coronavirus-tracking apps have faced hurdles, as Apple and Google have applied similar rules that they do for all app developers. Apple, for instance, has told public health officials developing contact-tracing apps that they can’t have full access to Bluetooth because it would drain battery life and create privacy concerns.
Those rules have led to problems with some of the apps developed to trace the spread of the virus. Officials in Singapore, Britain, Canada and the United States have said contact-tracing apps developed in those countries have not worked properly because the phones cannot access the Bluetooth antenna often enough. In Singapore, citizens were asked to walk around with the app open on their phone and their screen unlocked to make the app work better. Another issue has been getting Bluetooth antennas on Android phones to communicate properly with iOS devices.
In response, Apple and Google said, “This technology is in the hands of public health agencies across the world who will take the lead and we will continue to support their efforts.”
Separate from these efforts to enhance contact tracing around the globe, Apple and Google joined to create “exposure notification” software, which launched last week and allows governments to create apps that may notify people if they have come into contact with someone with the coronavirus. But that software, aimed at protecting privacy, is not meant to be used for contact tracing, the companies say, and many public health officials agree that it doesn’t aid in the problems they want to solve.
For instance, public health officials interviewing a person who tested positive for coronavirus would like to get that person’s consent to view the contents of an app that traced the person’s interpersonal contacts, and in some cases location, over the previous two weeks. That would help public health officials determine who else might have been exposed. But the software developed by Google and Apple does not allow for that type of use because of privacy concerns cited by the companies.
Google and Apple, as well as privacy advocates, have resisted allowing governments more access to the data, fearing the data could be shared with law enforcement or even other private companies outside of government.
“We are wary of saying a private company should give the government access to anything in the phone without ridiculous protections,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney and Adams chair for Internet rights at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy organization. “Surveillance is surveillance.”
Still, Jeffrey Kahn, director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and the lead author of the recently published paper, said technology could make a huge difference in fighting the virus, but that a knee-jerk reaction to keep data from getting in the hands of public health officials could hurt that ability.
“Too much emphasis on privacy could severely limit the ability to gather information that is critical for effective and efficient contact tracing to help beat the pandemic, and so the full range of interests and values of the public must drive this conversation — and not just those asserted by tech companies,” he said.