Apple and Google have announced a ban on the use of location data in mobile apps that utilize a new contact tracing system developed jointly by the pair.
The two tech giants began work last month on a system for alerting individuals who have come into contact with someone that has been diagnosed with Covid-19. In theory, contact tracing should minimise the speed of transmission, by identifying at-risk individuals in advance of symptoms appearing.
While the information collected by these apps is set to be shared with public health authorities, Apple and Google have drawn the line at location data. Instead, apps that lean on the new system will exclusively use Bluetooth to record interactions.
The move is designed to prevent governments using GPS location data to surveil and profile citizens, for purposes beyond the coronavirus effort.
As various contact-tracing apps near launch or enter circulation, debate over legality and data privacy issues has ratcheted up.
The viability of the apps has also been called into question, with critics suggesting an unrealistic proportion of the population would have to participate for the system to prove effective in quelling the virus.
Further, it was found that Apple and Google’s contact-tracing service will be unavailable on as many as two billion mobile phones, which do not have the necessary facilities to run the apps – ruling out a vast number of potential participants from the get-go.
Developers of state-sponsored contact-tracing apps have reportedly criticised the banning of location data, which they see as central to identifying coronavirus hotspots and mapping viral transmission in specific regions.
Others, meanwhile, will forgo Apple and Google’s system altogether, opting for their own approach. The developer of Utah’s contact-tracing app – which uses both GPS and Bluetooth to detect and log encounters – claims its service “operates effectively” without the third-party technology.
Apple and Google have said they will allow one application per country to use the new contact-tracing facility to discourage fragmentation, but will make exceptions for countries that operate under a federated system, such as the United States.