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Coronavirus: Apple, Google to ban location tracking in joint contact tracing system

Click to play video 'Coronavirus outbreak: What are the privacy risks behind ‘contact tracing’ apps?' Coronavirus outbreak: What are the privacy risks behind ‘contact tracing’ apps?
As companies like Apple and Google take measures to tackle COVID-19, Ryerson University Associate Professor Richard Lachman breaks down their high tech approach – and the privacy concerns contact tracing apps could pose – Apr 28, 2020

Apple Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google on Monday said they would 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% 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.

READ MORE: Consent for coronavirus tracing apps must be ‘meaningful’, Canada’s privacy watchdog says

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But the developers of official coronavirus-related apps in several U.S. 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.

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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.

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Coronavirus outbreak: Privacy and public health protection can be achieved with the right contact tracing app: commissioner – May 3, 2020

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.

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“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.

READ MORE: Alberta launches ABTraceTogether app to improve contact tracing, fight COVID-19 spread

The province of Alberta, 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 U.S. states will be allowed to use the system.

Click to play video 'Alberta launches ABTraceTogether app to improve COVID-19 contact tracing' Alberta launches ABTraceTogether app to improve COVID-19 contact tracing
Alberta launches ABTraceTogether app to improve COVID-19 contact tracing – May 1, 2020

Britain will start testing its own COVID-19 tracing app on the Isle of Wight on Tuesday.

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It has taken a different approach from other European countries by processing data centrally rather than solely on the devices themselves, where a higher level of privacy can be guaranteed.

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

With files from Reuters’ Paul Sandle