iPhone 8 at a show in Berlin

US Senator concerned about privacy in Apple and Google’s Covid-19 tracing tech

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A US senator has said Apple and Google still have a long way to go to convince people that their coronavirus tracing technology will not violate the privacy of users.

“Apple and Google have a lot of work to do to convince a rightfully sceptical public that they are fully serious about the privacy and security of their contact tracing efforts,” Senator Richard Blumenthal said in a statement.

Last Friday, the two firms announced a rare collaboration that will focus on contact-tracing technology, which aims to slow the spread of the virus.

The move could accelerate usage of apps that aim to get potentially infected individuals into testing or quarantine more quickly and reliably than existing systems in much of the world.

To be effective, the Silicon Valley system would require millions of people to opt in the system, trusting the technology companies’ safeguards, as well as smooth oversight by public health systems.

“I urgently want to know how Apple and Google will assure that consumers’ privacy interests are strongly balanced with the legitimate needs of public health officials during the coronavirus pandemic,” Blumenthal said.

“A public health crisis cannot be a pretence to pave over our privacy laws or legitimise tech companies’ intrusive data collection about American’s personal lives.”

One of the most effective ways to limit the spread of the disease is through extensive testing of the population, coupled with contact tracing, so that those who could be infected with the virus are made aware and told to self-isolate.

Reuters reports that while Apple and Google did not comment on Blumenthal’s remarks they pointed to a joint release which said that “privacy, transparency and consent are of utmost importance.”

The two firms have had differing approaches to privacy in the past, with Apple making data protection a key selling point of their iOS ecosystem, despite some hiccups in the past, while Google’s business model has been centred around using people’s data to create targeted advertising, sometimes leading to controversial ramifications.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the US, told Snapchat’s 'Good Luck America' that he had not spoken with Google or Apple, but believed that the public would accept contact-tracing apps more easily if they were not run by the federal government.

“I think they’d feel better about it if it’s private,” he said.

In the UK, MP’s have called for greater scrutiny into NHS proposals to create a contact-tracing app that may or may not have the option to “de-anonymise” users if necessary, according to leaked documents.

One solution could be a new open-source app that permits contact tracing for potential coronavirus infections while preserving the privacy of its users.

Developed by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, TrackCOVID works by creating an anonymous graph of interactions. Every time a person gathers with others or goes to a public place, he or she can use the app to log contacts by either hosting or joining a checkpoint, which allows possible paths of virus transmission to be discovered.

The first person to register as a checkpoint host is given a Quick Response (QR) code; others subsequently join the checkpoint by scanning this QR code. As people congregate with others over time, their interactions are linked to each other anonymously.

Anyone who tests positive for Covid-19 can report it through the app without revealing his or her identity. Using the graph of interactions, the app will notify users who may be at elevated risk of exposure.

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