Here's why Apple and Google's coronavirus tracking system is 'virtually useless' to health officials
Apple CEO Tim Cook (Shutterstock)

Last month, Apple and Google announced they were forming a joint to build a system that tracks the spread of COVID-19, raising hopes that public health officials would be able to engage in more comprehensive contact tracing.

But according to The Washington Post, the new system will be "virtually useless" to public health officials, for one key reason: It won't actually share data with them.

"As the tech giants have revealed more details, officials now say the software will be of little use," wrote Reed Albergotti and Drew Harwell. "Due to strict rules imposed by the companies, the system will notify smartphone users if they’ve potentially come into contact with an infected person, but it won’t share any data with health officials or reveal where those meetings took place."

"Local health authorities in states like North Dakota, as well as in countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom, say they’ve pleaded with the companies to give them more control over the kinds of information their apps can collect," continued the report. "But Apple and Google have refused, arguing that letting the apps collect location data or loosening other smartphone rules would undermine people’s privacy. The companies are also concerned that easing the restrictions around apps’ Bluetooth use would drain phone battery life, which could irritate customers. That unbending stance has led some health authorities to abandon hopes of building a fully functioning contact-tracing app."

"Though the companies first debuted the effort by calling it a 'contact tracing' system, company executives now say it is designed to do no such thing," said the report. "'Public health authorities asked for our help because without our assistance, contact tracing apps that rely on Bluetooth may have technical challenges,' company officials wrote in an emailed statement. 'Our effort does not aspire to digitize contact tracing or to replace the human element of that critical public health function.'"

Helen Nissenbaum, director of Cornell University's Digital Life Initiative, criticized Apple and Google's privacy argument as a "flamboyant smokescreen," and added, “If it’s between Google and Apple having the data, I would far prefer my physician and the public health authorities to have the data about my health status. At least they’re constrained by laws.”

You can read more here.