Fighting COVID-19, One Phone Tracker at a Time

by Stephen Cooley ’23

With COVID-19 deaths rising rapidly, most of the world has deployed every tool in their toolbox when it comes to stopping the spread of coronavirus due to human behavior, with the exception of one—contact tracing. Contact tracing is the process of tracking down everyone who was exposed to a disease and alerting them, sometimes quarantining them altogether. This method of disease tracking was “pivotal” in fighting the Ebola crisis in 2014, declared the New York Times, and it could help turn the tide for COVID-19, too. The only issue? Contact tracing is hard.

The coronavirus is contagious for up to fourteen days before someone shows symptoms, and with testing kits extremely limited, symptoms can be the first sign for someone to realize that they’ve contracted the disease. This means that everyone who came in contact with a patient for up to fourteen days before they knew they had COVID-19 was potentially exposed, making contact tracing nearly impossible because people are not able to remember everyone they interacted with for the previous two weeks.

This is where Apple and Google come in—the two companies with more knowledge of the locations of millions, if not billions, of people than any other. Their operating systems—iOS and Android, respectively—run on almost 99% of all smartphones in the world, according to Statista, and these two tech rivals have announced that they would work together to create an app for contact tracing. The locations of all who download it would be monitored and stored, and if anyone reported that they had contracted COVID-19, every smartphone that had been close to that person in the past two weeks would be alerted of the exposure.

This app would be available “in the coming months,” according to Apple, and would work with Bluetooth to detect a phone’s proximity to other phones. In a statement to the New York Times, assistant professor of infectious diseases at the University of San Francisco, Dr. Mike Reid, said, “It could be a useful tool but it raises privacy issues,” echoing the concerns of many at the announcement of this tool.

Despite Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, assuring people on Twitter that the app would be created in a way that “respects transparency and consent,” and Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, promising “strong… protections for user privacy,” many are still wary that these two companies would have the ability to track nearly every smartphone on the globe at will. Both Google and Apple collect vast amounts of user data already and their record on transparency is spotty at best, so many fear that public acceptance during a crisis opens the door to a future where tracking is the norm – or even compulsory by law.

Thus the dilemma arises—contact tracing could save lives, but it might mean that nearly every American could have their every step tracked by these multi-billion dollar companies. Is that a price we are willing to pay, and will enough people subscribe to the service to actually make it effective? Even if just a small percentage of potential carriers slip through the cracks or opt out, the entire operation could be rendered largely useless by the possible spread caused by untraced cases. However, until the app comes out, many Americans have more than enough spare time to decide.

Works Cited

“Apple and Google partner on COVID-19 contact tracing technology.” Apple Newsroom, 10
April 2020, apple.com/newsroom/2020/04/apple-and-google-partner-on-covid-19-contact
-tracing-technology/. Accessed 12 April 2020. 

Murphy, Heather. “Contact Tracing Is Called Pivotal in Fighting Ebola.” New York Times, 2
October 2014, nytimes.com/2014/10/03/us/tracing-ebola-contacts-can-stop-virus-in-its-
tracks-experts-say.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article. Accessed
12 April 2020.

Nicas, Jack and Daisuke Wakabayashi. “Apple and Google Team Up to ‘Contact Trace’ the
Coronavirus.” New York Times, .nytimes.com/2020/04/10/technology/apple-google-coronavirus-contact-tracing.html. Accessed 12 April 2020.

O’Dea, S. “Mobile operating systems’ market share worldwide from January 2012 to December
2019” Statista, 28 Feb. 2020, statista.com/statistics/272698/global-market-share
-held-by-mobile-operating-systems-since-2009/. Accessed 12 April 2020. 

@sundarpichai. “To help public health officials slow the spread of #COVID19, Google &
@Apple are working on a contact tracing approach designed with strong controls and
protections for user privacy. @tim_cook and I are committed to working together on
these efforts.” Twitter, 10 April 2020. twitter.com/sundarpichai/status/1248658168990711808. 

@tim_cook. “Contact tracing can help slow the spread of COVID-19 and can be done without
compromising user privacy. We’re working with @sundarpichai & @Google to help
health officials harness Bluetooth technology in a way that also respects transparency &
Consent.” Twitter, 10 April 2020. twitter.com/tim_cook/status/1248657931433693184. 

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