‘This could be abused.’ Privacy experts take cautious approach to Apple and Google’s coronavirus contact-tracing technology

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Google GOOG, -0.77% GOOGL, -0.69% and Apple AAPL, -0.05% announced last week that new COVID-19 contact-tracing technology could help to flatten the curve of new infections and help reboot the U.S. economy.

But will Americans’ data live on indefinitely?

Already, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken the lives of at least 27,085 people in the U.S., and infected more than 614,482. Health experts have identified three key ways to decelerate the spread of the virus: social distancing, testing and “contact tracing.”

Contact tracing has played a significant role in flattening the curve in South Korea, where there were 10,591 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 225 reported deaths as of Wednesday.

Using security-camera footage, credit-card records, GPS data and satnav technology, South Korea has been able to pinpoint where a person has been.

After the MERS outbreak, South Korea quickly implemented legislation that would allow health officials to aggressively trace the footsteps of citizens who test positive for an emerging infectious disease. Using security camera footage, credit-card records, GPS data from cellphones and car-navigation systems, they are able to pinpoint exactly where a person has been.

South Koreans are also notified when a person in their district contracts COVID-19 and they are given highly detailed information about their whereabouts — including the exact bus they may have taken and whether or not they wore a mask. They don’t, however, release their names.

Apple and Google are working on a tool that would not be nearly as extensive as the methods used in South Korea. The project aims to use Bluetooth technology “to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus,” the companies said, “with user privacy and security central to the design.”

The technology works by harnessing short-range Bluetooth signals, known as Bluetooth beacons. Using the Apple-Google technology, contact-tracing apps would gather a record of other phones with which they came into close proximity.

The companies are expected to roll out their contact-tracing tool in two phases. In the first phase, they will release software next month for Android and iOS phones, the Associated Press reported, after which they will build this functionality into their operating systems.

‘The truth about Google and Apple is they have so much information about us already.’

— Josephine Wolff, a cybersecurity policy professor at The Fletcher School at Tufts University

Such data can be used to alert others who might have been infected by known carriers of the novel coronavirus, although only in cases where the owners of those smartphones have installed the apps and agreed to share data with public-health authorities.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, applauded the private sector’s involvement in ramping up testing and developing contact-tracing technology during a press briefing on Tuesday.

“Apple and other companies are working on using technology to do tracking. How do we do that and how do we do it fast?” Cuomo later acknowledged that some people would have privacy concerns. “Do you really want that cell phone in your pocket to be a tracking device?” he asked.

The contact-tracing system Apple and Google are developing will not share your location information with either company or the people who come into contact with, an Apple spokesman told MarketWatch.

Information will be anonymized and reconfigured every 15 minutes to ensure the information abides by their privacy standards, both companies said. Nor will they use the kind of comprehensive (or invasive) contact-tracing methods that South Korea has employed.

An Apple spokesman said that none of the information gathered will be monetized and will only be used for contact tracing. Both companies, he added, can disable the broadcast system on a regional basis when it is no longer needed.

(Google did not respond to MarketWatch’s request for a comment.)

Others, however, are skeptical. “All of this could be abused,” said Klon Kitchen, a technology analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy think-tank based in Washington D.C., and former national security adviser to Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

‘They have a vested interest in getting the economy up and running and getting their engineers back in the building.’

— Klon Kitchen, a technology analyst at the Heritage Foundation

“But information that could be used is already being collected,” he added, referring to Google and Apple’s respective mapping applications. For that reason, Kitchen said he would not opt in for contact tracing until the companies provided more details on exactly how they would glean location information from users.

But he added, “They have a vested interest in getting the economy up and running, and getting their engineers back in the building, and the government lacks the ability to do this.”

“The bigger concern is: What if other entities can access?” said Josephine Wolff, a cybersecurity policy professor at The Fletcher School at Tufts University.

She is, however, reassured that the two companies would, at least, keep any identifiable information out of the hands of third parties. “You might worry about someone creating a map of where you have been, but with an identifier that changes every 15 minutes it would be so much harder to trace to an individual person,” Woff said.

“The truth about Google and Apple is they have so much information about us already,” she added.

Originally Published on MarketWatch

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