By Calvin Freiburger
Apple has laid the groundwork to support COVID-19 tracking applications on iPhones in the name of containing the coronavirus, despite concerns about user privacy and individual rights.
On Wednesday, Apple and Google both released the first public version of their “Exposure Notification” API (application programming interface), TechCrunch reports. APIs facilitate communication between the programs and data sets on a device.
The APIs do not themselves begin initiating contact tracing on somebody’s phone, but rather enable future contact-tracing apps to work when downloaded. Exposure Notification employs a “decentralized identifier system that uses randomly generated temporary keys created on a user’s device (but not tied to their specific identity or info),” according to TechCrunch. “Apple and Google’s API allows public health agencies to define what constitutes potential exposure in terms of exposed time and distance, and they can tweak transmission risk and other factors according to their own standards.”
Exposure Notification is officially being added to iPhones with Thursday’s rollout of the iOS 13.5 software update:
#BREAKING: NEW Software update for @Apple #iOS135 “introduces the Exposure Notification API to support COVID-19 contact tracing apps from public health authorities.”#COVID #Coronavirus #Covid19AndTech #ContactTracing #TrackandTrace #BigBrother #Security #Privacy pic.twitter.com/hTzAKaVUkd
— Bree A Dail (@breeadail) May 21, 2020
Apple stated in a recent press release that it was working with Google on developing “contact tracing” capabilities on devices.
Across the world, governments and health authorities are working together to find solutions to the COVID‑19 pandemic, 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, Google and Apple are announcing a joint effort to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design.
As part of this partnership Google and Apple are releasing draft documentation for an Exposure Notification system in service of privacy-preserving contact tracing.
Apple insists that “Each user will have to make an explicit choice to turn on the technology,” which “can also be turned off by the user at any time,” and that it “does not collect location data from your device, and does not share the identities of other users to each other, Google or Apple.”
It also stresses that data will only be given to “public health authorities” if their apps “meet specific criteria around privacy, security, and data control.” But concerns remain as to just how secure users’ personal information will be in practice, and what exactly will constitute users’ “consent.”
There are some, however, who demand an even more heavy-handed approach to high-tech COVID-19 tracking. Politico reports that some advocates of locking down society say nothing less than full contact tracing, which entails not only identifying but tracking the movements of people with COVID-19, will suffice.
Unless societies accept “privacy trade-offs,” COVID-19 tracking systems will be “unlikely to help people navigate their world, to leave their house and feel safe,” argues University of Washington Law School professor Ryan Calo.
However, others argue there are already examples of how to make people feel safe and be safe without such measures. Florida, for instance, focused on protecting the elderly early, did not lock down as strictly as other states, and is seeing hospitalizations after upon reopening.
“In New Jersey, 51 senior care residents out of every 100,000 people died,” Conservative Review’s Daniel Horowitz writes. “In New York, nearly 27 per 100,000 have died. Even in smaller and younger Colorado, more than 10 nursing home residents have died per capita. In Florida? Just 3.5 per 100,000.”
As previously covered by LifeSiteNews, questions also remain as to just how secure Apple and Google’s vision really is.
The pan-European technology group DP3T warns that while the incoming apps promise safeguards for the anonymity of the data they track, hackers or law enforcement agencies would still be able to break them, potentially opening the door to “long-term persistent surveillance of individuals by third parties.”
“We need a roadmap of where this is going, who might have access, and without that roadmap and accountability around it, it is very hard to say the system is secure against mission creep,” warns Michael Veale of University College London.