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Privacy risks loom over Apple and Google's COVID-19 tracing tool

Industry experts have expressed mixed reactions to Apple Inc. and Google LLC's joint effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus, noting that the companies' immense size and reach are valuable but also raise privacy concerns.

The tech players plan to launch a contact-tracing tool on their respective platforms that will alert users who have come into contact with a person that has tested positive for COVID-19 and provide additional resources to those that have been exposed.

While Apple and Google say that privacy and security are central to the project, analysts and industry observers question whether these companies that collectively have access to data from a vast majority of the world's population and already face scrutiny for their privacy practices are the best choice to lead the project.

READ MORE: Sign up for our weekly coronavirus newsletter here, and read our latest coverage on the crisis here.

Two-step approach

The new tool, which uses Bluetooth technology, will be integrated into Apple and Google's operating systems in two steps.

In May, the companies plan to enable iPhones and Android phones to wirelessly exchange information through apps run by public health authorities. The apps can be downloaded via Apple and Google's respective app stores.

In the next few months, the companies then will incorporate the technology into their underlying platforms.

"The reach that the combination of Apple and Google have when it comes to people's mobile phones is staggering," said Bob O'Donnell, president and chief analyst at TECHnalysis Research.

While O'Donnell praised Apple and Google's efforts on this front, he noted it remains to be seen what the real-world ramifications of the technology will be. For instance, the effort could incite unnecessary panic if several people receive exposure notifications all at once, he said.

SNL Image

Apple and Google's contact-tracing technology for COVID-19 will help notify people at risk.
Source: Google

Privacy concerns

Users must provide explicit consent to use the service and their location data will not be collected, the companies said. The system uses Bluetooth signals to exchange anonymous "keys" between phones in close proximity to each other, meaning users' identities remain private.

However, the nature of this type of technology requires that the relevant data on users' devices be transferred to some kind of central source to be evaluated and anonymized, and then transferred back to the affected individuals, explained Paige Bartley, a senior analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence's 451 Research unit, who has expertise in data management.

"This data is not entirely restricted to individual devices," Bartley said. "It can't be; it would never work that way."

As such, she said it is "troubling" that Apple and Google, which are among the world's largest data-centric businesses and have arguably not maintained the transparency needed "to achieve the trust of the public," will be holding that data.

Notably, state regulators are already engaged in antitrust investigations of Google, while federal antitrust regulators at the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission are also engaged in broader probes evaluating how large tech platforms may have harmed consumers.

Washington, investors respond

Politicians and investors are already voicing their concerns. U.S. President Donald Trump said during a recent White House press briefing that the project poses "big constitutional problems" and that it would be more closely examined in the coming weeks.

Michael Connor, executive director of Open MIC, a nonprofit organization that works with investors on media and technology issues, cautioned that the service could open the door for tech companies and the government to glean additional sensitive information from users later on, including political beliefs, ethnicity and more.

"What assurances do we have that contact tracing won't remain in place when the pandemic subsides?" Connor posed in emailed comments.

Connor's organization and investment management firm Arjuna Capital recently filed a handful of proxy proposals directed at Google-parent Alphabet Inc., Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc., asking the companies to establish director-level oversight on human and civil rights issues.

The advocacy groups cited particular concerns around the companies' role in advancing "surveillance capitalism," a term that refers to a company profiting from the sale of data.

Promoting usage

O'Donnell also noted that the effectiveness of the technology could be hindered if not as many people use it as expected due to privacy concerns or just a general lack of knowledge.

To make the project successful, Ahmed Banafa, an engineering professor at San Jose State University who has expertise in cybersecurity, suggested the companies provide clear incentives for users, such as allowing those who have been exposed to receive priority for virus testing.

"The more you explain [the technology], the more you make people understand what's going on, the more they're going to feel comfortable," Banafa said.