Labiba Anjumi Kabir
Across the world, governments and health authorities are working together to find a cure to the Covid-19 pandemic in order to protect people and get society back up and running. Software developers are contributing by crafting technical tools to help combat the virus and save lives. In this spirit of collaboration, darling companies or Wall Street, Google and Apple are announcing a joint effort to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design.
Apple Inc and Google LLC have just introduced a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) that can track if users have been in contact with someone infected with the novel coronavirus. On the 10th of April, the multinational companies decided to pair up on a pair of iOS and Android APIs to be launched in mid-May. Even though a Bluetooth app is one of the up-and-coming solutions, availing digital surveillance tech to do so raises huge privacy concerns.
A lot of people think that to tackle a fast moving killer like the novel coronavirus, technology is essential.
The app is going to allow its users to share data through Bluetooth low energy transmissions. The software will automatically and autonomously log in all the people the user has been in contact with. The system blasts out Bluetooth, and it requires infected people to log in keys that they have been tested positive for the virus, which keeps tracing the Bluetooth signal of their phones. This Bluetooth plan wouldn’t track people’s physical location. Basically, it would pick up the signals of nearby phones at 5-minute intervals, and store the connections between them in a database. If someone tests positive for the virus, they can log into the app. The app will upload a code, and it will notify other users if their phones were exposed to the infected person’s cell phone.
The companies have assured that the contact tracing approach has been designed with controls and protections for users’ security, and that there will be no security breaches. Apple and Google collectively confirmed that their concern is still users’ privacy. They assured a contact tracing approach designed with strong controls and protections for users’ privacy.
This method still has potential weaknesses. In crowded areas, it could flag people in adjacent rooms who aren’t actually sharing space with the user, making people worry unnecessarily. It may also not capture the nuance of how long someone was exposed — working next to an infected person all day, for example, will expose you to a much greater viral load than walking by them on the street. It is less effective in areas with lower connectivity as well.
It’s also a relatively new program, and Apple and Google are still talking to public health authorities and other stakeholders about how to run it. This system probably can’t replace old-fashioned methods of contact tracing — which involve interviewing infected people about where they’ve been, and who they’ve spent time with.
However, this initiative may offer a high-tech supplement using a device that billions of people already own.
Labiba is a post-millennial chaotic neutral who obsesses with memes and Netflix.