Amid all the coronavirus craziness, we didn’t think there’d be much that could surprise us anymore. Yet, Apple and Google have still managed to leave us open-mouthed with their announcement that they’re working together on systems to allow contact tracing as a step to control the spread of the virus. There’s been only two and a bit weeks since the efforts began, according to the companies, so the details are currently scant. On Monday journalists were invited to dial into a conference call, and Casey Newton for The Verge did just that, and wrote the original version of this article. 

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The premise is pretty simple; governments the world over are working to “flatten the curve” and not overburden their health systems with more cases than they can handle at one time, and to achieve this, as well as a slackening of the social distancing and lockdown policies, there needs to be a detailed “test and trace” program. The aim is to get as many people tested, accurately, for active coronavirus cases and immunity after battling COVID-19. Once new cases have been identified with tests, the next step is to find everyone who’s been in contact with a corona-positive person and test and treat them as needed. 

Until now, this process has been done manually, yet since this current pandemic began, there has been a push to harness technology, namely the smartphone in your pocket, to help public health authorities track down people who may have been in contact with an infected person. There’s no clear evidence that the approach has been effective up to now. One big reason for this is the voluntary nature of the apps being used, with most people not keen to get apps downloaded. Further, the Bluetooth technology that the systems use can give a lot of false positives. There isn’t the inherent power to figure out which cases have been close enough to people to spread corona, and those who’ve been far away, with inaccuracy ranging past 15 feet. 

As unusual as the collaboration between traditional rivals Apple and Google is, one of the most curious elements of the project is how effective the system could be. The whole project is packed with intrigue and curiosities and questions over and above general interest. We’re going to look at what’s being spoken about and what was said on the call.

Data security

Privacy violations are obviously one of the biggest concerns with two of the biggest data handlers coming together. Voice is being lent to these worries by a group of Democratic senators; they’ve sent an open letter to both companies to highlight their fears. Newton isn’t too bothered by these issues. Firstly, the joint system is designed in such a way that user privacy is actually central. This is encapsulated in the app by not actually capturing the data points of the user’s data, but rather recording how close your phone comes to another one. Further, Newton is prepared to sacrifice a modicum of privacy, if needed, is viable during a public health crisis. He trusts the two tech giants not to allow his personal health data to be identifiable or shared. Due to the way the system is being designed, it’s hard to see how a hack or data breach could even be catastrophic if it were to ever happen. 

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Real-world practicalities are the second concern being put forward about the system. These questions were answered during the press chat with Google and Apple, here are the takeaways. 

To start, it was confirmed that in phase two of the project, where operating system level contact tracing will be enabled, they will send notifications to people who have completed an opt-in to know about their potential coronavirus contacts. This notification will come, regardless of whether the person has downloaded the actual app from the public health authority that has jurisdiction. It seems that the OS will make the alert to people, advising that they’ve potentially been in contact with an infected person and they’re going to be sent to a page where they can download the app they need. This step in the process is a possible snag; people don’t like being asked to download and install software. When a similar system was introduced in Singapore only 12 percent of citizens put the contact tracing app onto their phones. The ability to notify people at the level of their OS is a big turning point in getting this working effectively, even though an opt-in could still be a stumbling block. 

The next issue to contend with is the fact that Google said they were intending to push an OS update through Google Play. Since this is controlled directly by Android, it means that most active devices can be reached; it’ll work with every device that runs Android 6.0, or Marshmallow, and higher as long as they have Play Store installed. Doing it this way is better than asking carriers to do the update since they’ve not got a great track record of rolling out system updates. 

What’s still not clear is what phones are going to be eligible, for both Android and for iOS. What is certain is that the vast majority of active phones in the world are within their reach; this is impressive by anyone’s measure. During the conversation, it was asked what level of coverage by the app was needed to make the system effective, no answer was forthcoming.

The technicalities

As a safeguard, the duo said the system couldn’t be abused because the alerts would be in the hands of local public health agencies. To allow for that level of development too, the companies are already working alongside the UK’s National Health System to get an alert system in place. The details are waiting to be filled out, and they’re going to look different across different agencies, but Apple and Google have said they’re very aware of how important it is to prevent false alerts and false claims of a COVID-19 infection. They’ve confirmed the mechanism would look something like a person getting a one-time code upon official diagnosis, once this code is entered alerts will be triggered to those they’ve been close to whilst contagious. 

As an assurance about the future direction of the system, both companies offered promises that the system would be used only for its primary purpose and that they’d dismantle the framework that will be built once the pandemic is over. Legitimate concerns have been raised about the system being misused for commercial purposes or whether NGOs could gain access to the masses of data. On the call, there was an explicit denial that either would ever happen. 

Concerns have been raised about how accurate distances can be measured by Bluetooth. There have been reports about Bluetooth not being able to distinguish what 6 feet between phones looks like, which is the recommended social distance. Devices up to 20 or even 30 feet away may still be registered as being in proximity. There is supposed to be an element of the standards of Bluetooth, known as received signal strength indication, or RSSI, that is able to gather very detailed location data.

According to Apple, the supposed accuracy of RSSI is weakened by a range of factors. These include how each device is orientated to each other, if the phone is buried in a bag or otherwise protected from giving off a fully accurate signal, and other signal altering real-life issues. With all these very feasible limitations, confidence in the system and how it can distinguish how close people have been to each other is diminished. No one’s giving up and options are being explored.

Can it be effective?

With all of this, how are we feeling about the technology behind potential contact tracing apps? Security researcher Ross Anderson covered the same issues, and more, in his article at the weekend. He wrote, “I suspect the tracing apps are really just do-something-itis, most countries now seem past the point where contact tracing is a high priority; even Singapore has had to go into lockdown.”

However, Ben Thompson posits that the groundwork being done on the technology now can be developed for later application. In his post he said:

“They are creating optionality. When and if society decides that this sort of surveillance is acceptable (and, critically, builds up the other components — like testing — of an effective response) the technology will be ready; it is only a flip of a switch for Apple and Google to centralize this data (or, perhaps as a middle ground, enable mobile device management software used by enterprises, centralize this capability). This is no small thing considering that software is not built in a day.”

Newton still has doubts about the prospects of digital contact tracing, believing it won’t form one of the central pillars of any country’s overall response to coronavirus. Experts are still putting their confidence in social distancing, mass testing, and the isolation of those who are sick as the most important actions we can take. Contact tracing is generally more effectively done by humans instead of phones, even though many hundreds of thousands of people would need to be hired to complete the process. 

Still, a process of digitized contact tracing could complement human efforts in the long-run. Hong Kong is currently handing out physical tracking bracelets to all arrivals to the island, and this hardcore, hardware approach is very solid in comparison to what Apple and Google are working on. The US response may just need a range of half measures to be able to build a semblance of a coherent, effective response.