Apple and Google pledge to deactivate contact tracing tool after coronavirus pandemic ends

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How contact tracing is being influenced by technology.

In early April, Apple and Google announced a monumental plan to create an automated contact tracing tool to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. In the initial announcement, the Big Tech duo pledged that the solution would be privacy-focused.

However, it still raised some concerns—mainly from users that were worried about what it could be used for after the pandemic subsides. People no longer need to be concerned about that. On Friday, the duo announced a revised plan for their contact tracing tool. They specifically noted that it will be deactivated once the pandemic subsides.

Apple and Google’s Original Solution

Earlier this month, The Burn-In reported that Apple and Google were teaming up to create an automated contact tracing tool. At the time, plans for such a solution were developing rapidly. The news came just days after MIT announced a similar system for automating the process of determining when an infected person comes into contact with someone else.

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However, of all the ideas being posed, Apple and Google’s was undoubtedly the most promising. A team-up between two of the world’s most influential tech companies almost guarantees success. When the solution involves smartphones, having these two firms working together is even more important.

According to 2019 mobile market share data from Statista, 98.9 percent of the world’s smartphones run either Android or iOS. As such, a smartphone-based solution that works with both operating systems could theoretically cover almost the entire phone-carrying population.

The contact tracing API from Apple and Google does just that. It works across the two platforms thanks to natural integrations and uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) transmissions between devices to help users know if they’ve been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

The system is designed to be integrated into the apps of various public health agencies. Each user is given a random string of numbers that acts as their identifier. When in contact with other phones, the user’s phone stores a log of their identifiers. Then, if one of those contacts tests positive for the virus, their number is flagged in an anonymous database. Users who encountered that number can get a notification to let them know they may have been exposed to the virus.

The duo originally planned to release the system in early May. With that deadline lurking around the corner, it appears that things are on track.

Revising the Plan

On Friday, Apple and Google announced some updates to the project. These include revisions that take into account feedback the firms have received from various third parties. Moreover, the duo published a “Frequently Asked Questions” page. There isn’t much new information on the page, but it’s a good resource for people who are suspicious of the contact tracing tool.

Speaking of, Google and Apple are trying to get away from associating their tool with the term contact tracing. Instead, they are now referring to it as an “exposure notification” system. They argue that the functions of the app fit into the larger picture of traditional contact tracing but don’t replace it. That’s a valid point.

Contact tracing is typically done by an experienced public health professional that performs interviews and identifies potential outbreak clusters. The system being developed by Apple and Google can’t do either of those things. It only helps build an automated network that lets people know when they may have been exposed to the virus. While that is a necessary step to restore the world to normalcy, it doesn’t completely replace contact tracing.

Related: Our greatest ally: What is coronavirus contact tracing and how does it work?

Changing the name is just one of the revisions announced by the Big Tech duo. Arguably the most important detail is that the tool will be disabled after the COVID-19 pandemic is resolved. Since it is a global phenomenon, that decision will need to be made on a regional basis. This means it could be shut down in some countries before others. Regardless, it won’t still be tracking people once the virus problem is solved.

Even Better Privacy

The thought of automated tracking using your smartphone is a bit unnerving—even if it is being done anonymously. Many people have understandably been concerned about the privacy implications of Google and Apple’s tool.

To address those concerns, the duo announced some further steps on Friday that will maintain user privacy. The system will use a new encryption method. With it, each individual’s identification key will be randomly generated each day. Previously, it was mathematically derived from a private, permanent key. The new approach makes it much more difficult to track down an individual.

The new design outlined on Friday also includes specifications for how Bluetooth metadata may be used. By default, devices broadcast their base power level (to determine proximity) and which version of the tracing tool they are running. Although it doesn’t sound harmful, that information could be used to identify a specific user.

To proactively counter that threat, the team is encrypting the data so that it can’t be decoded in transit.

All of these changes will help make the exposure notification system more anonymous and more private. For it to succeed, hundreds of millions of people will need to download it and use it. It goes without saying that such widespread adoption will never happen if users don’t trust the tool itself.

Though the world of Big Tech is not without its share of privacy scandals, it appears that Google and Apple are doing everything they can to protect users. As of now, it isn’t clear when the duo plans to release the tool. A whitelisted version of the API will be the first thing that is distributed. Hopefully, that will occur early next month.

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