As Google becomes key infrastructure for new coronavirus relief, old issues haunt it

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Apple and Google this month announced a partnership in which it will provide third parties the ability to create apps by this summer that can alert people when they’re near someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 or showed symptoms. The tech giants’ mobile operating systems, Android and iOS, collectively power more than 99% of the world’s smartphones, making their involvement much more significant for the tracking of the coronavirus than individual government efforts.

At the time, the companies shared an illustration of how it might work. Easy enough, it seemed. But since then, the effort has shown to be more complicated than initially drawn-up as a familiar concern haunts its plans: trust.

The companies say users shouldn’t worry about privacy and that they will have to opt in to the apps before it’ll collect information. They claim to not share location information with either the company or the people who come into contact with each other. It will also anonymize the data for the highest level of security, they said.

However, in a call with reporters this week discussing further details, senior representatives from both companies said their biggest concern is that people won’t accept their words and trust them enough to use it, which can hamper the efforts as contact tracing requires significant participation in order to work effectively. That represented the first admittance from the companies’ leaders that they have a trust problem on their hands, and that it could prevent their proposed solution.

It comes as public health and government officials call contract tracing the best way to stop the spread of the coronavirus, despite needing at least 60% participation to work effectively. Late last week, Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, announced a new “focus” for stopping the virus’ spread, saying community surveillance is now considered “critical” to understanding the virus and its spread.

“When we see a hotspot, we can surprise it — whack it,” President Trump added, noting such technology could be a weapon to use in what he called an “invisible war,” referring to Covid-19.

However days later, on Monday, 300 academics from around the world wrote an open letter about concerns of such tech “solutions,” naming Google and Apple. “We are concerned that some ‘solutions’ to the crisis may, via mission creep, result in systems which would allow unprecedented surveillance of society at large.”

While both Apple and Google are behind the new technology, critics are scrutinizing Google more given its history of privacy-related concerns. It also faces increasingly common questions from people curious why a company most known for collecting data to inform 85% of its revenue from targeted advertising informed by personal data, can be safely relied on to be the holder of health data. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal said last Wednesday in a statement that the company, alongside Apple, has “a lot of work to do to convince a rightfully skeptical public that they are fully serious about the privacy and security of their contact tracing efforts.” President Trump praised Apple and Google’s initiative on Tuesday, but warned that it would raise “big constitutional problems” for “a lot of people.” 

European officials pressured the company to closely follow Europe’s data privacy rules this week.

“Contact tracing apps can be useful to limit the spread of the coronavirus. But their development and interoperability need to fully respect our values and privacy,” Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market commissioner, said after a video meeting with Google and YouTube CEOs on Wednesday.  

The company said governments can’t force their citizens to use contact tracing technology. But it’s a precarious position as it faces pressure from global governments pressing for more information. Europe’s national health service, which is working on a contact-tracing app, is currently in a standoff with Google and Apple over data collection limits, reported The Guardian Monday. Google’s response to the U.S. government has been inconsistent–especially recently. Last month, it showed its allegiance when it claimed to be on the same page as Trump when he touted a vast, country-wide testing and resource website, which was later found to be exaggerated and not exactly on the same page.

The contract tracing effort is just one of several Google-backed coronavirus efforts that face similar trust issues.

Weeks before the launch, Google announced it started tracking populations of people in public places and residences across 131 countries as well as individual counties within certain states. While the company spent time trying to say the data would be collected in aggregate rather than an individual level, that didn’t stop concerns from flooding almost immediately. Privacy critics and congress members acknowledged questioned whether the company would use the data for anything else. The same questions came in when sister company Verily said Google would have access to its patient data from its Covid-19 screening website.

Google’s location tracking settings have been a source of confusion over the years — in April 2019, CNBC’s Todd Haselton found that Google had been tracking his location for years without him realizing it, and explained how to turn tracking off. In October 2019, Australian officials accused Google of misleading consumers in 2018 and earlier about the settings necessary to turn off location tracking.

The company started facing trust issues again late last year, after it was found to be working on a secret project with hospital network Ascension as it tried to ramp up its health efforts with its cloud business. The Google-Ascension deal was revealed that 150 Google employees already had access to data on tens of millions of patients without their knowledge or consent. That concern bled into 2020 when a major medical records vendor Epic Systems warned customers it will stop working with Google Cloud.

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