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Apple and Google to ban location tracking in COVID-19 contact tracing system

Apple and Google to ban location tracking in COVID-19 contact tracing system

Apple and Google, whose operating systems power 99 per cent of smart phones, said last month they would work together to create a system for notifying people who have been near others who have tested positive for COVID-19

Credit: Leif Johnson/IDG

Apple and Google have said they will ban the use of location tracking in apps that use a new contact tracing system the two are building to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Apple and Google, whose operating systems power 99 per cent of smart phones, said last month they would work together to create a system for notifying people who have been near others who have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The companies plan to allow only public health authorities to use the technology.

Both companies said privacy and preventing governments from using the system to compile data on citizens was a primary goal. The system uses Bluetooth signals from phones to detect encounters and does not use or store GPS location data.

But the developers of official coronavirus-related apps in several US states told Reuters last month it was vital they be allowed to use GPS location data in conjunction with the new contact tracing system to track how outbreaks move and identify hotspots.

The Apple-Google decision to not allow GPS data collection with their contact tracing system will require public health authorities that want to access GPS location to rely on what Apple and Google have described as unstable, battery-draining workarounds.

Alternatives likely would miss some encounters because iPhones and Android devices turn off Bluetooth connections after some time for battery-saving and other reasons unless users remember to re-activate them.

But some apps said they planned to stick to their own approaches.

Software company Twenty, which developed the state of Utah's Healthy Together contact tracing app with both GPS and Bluetooth, said on Monday the app "operates effectively" without the new Apple-Google tool.

"If their approach can be more effective than our current solution, we’ll eagerly incorporate their features into our existing application, provided it meets the specifications of current and prospective public health partners," Twenty said.

Canada's Alberta province, which does not collect GPS data, said it has no plans to adopt the Apple-Google system for its ABTraceTogether app.

Privacy experts have warned that any cache of location data related to health issues could make businesses and individuals vulnerable to being ostracized if the data is exposed.

Apple and Google also said Monday they will allow only one app per country to use the contact system, to avoid fragmentation and encourage wider adoption. The companies said they would, however, support countries that opt for a state or regional approach, and that US states will be allowed to use the system.

The Australian Government launched its own coronavirus tracing app in late April, promising at the time to legislate privacy protections around it as authorities try to get the country and the economy back onto more normal footing.

(Reporting by Stephen Nellis and Paresh Dave in San Francisco; Editing by Tom Brown and Leslie Adler)


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