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On April 10, 2020, Google and Apple
announced that they would partner to develop Bluetooth technology
to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the
COVID-19 through contact tracing.

Contact tracing is the tracing of
individuals who may have been in contact with COVID-19 positive
individuals. In theory, those who have been in contact with
infected individuals are contacted by tracers and assessed whether
they are at low or high risk and if the latter, told to isolate for
14 days.  

Public health officials believe
that contact tracing is critical to combatting the
pandemic. In the last few days, South Korea has brought the
spread of COVID-19 virus to single digits, in part, through
aggressive contact tracing by technological means. Other Asian
countries have also been successful through their contract

Why is contact tracing
critical?  It has to do with the transmission of respiratory
infections, which is through close proximately to infected
individuals. According to current evidence published by the WHO,
the COVID-19 virus is primarily transmitted by respiratory
droplets. This occurs when a person is in close or direct contact
(within 1 m) with someone who has respiratory symptoms, such as
coughing or sneezing, and exposes the uninfected person to the
potentially infective droplets through his/her mouth, nose or eyes.
However, transmission may also occur through indirect contact such
as touching the surfaces in the immediate environment of an
infected person or through objects used to treat an infected person
(e.g., stethoscope or thermometer).

Google and Apple are proposing a
two stage launch of the contact tracing technology. In May, both
companies will release application program interfaces
(“API”) that enable interoperability between Android and
iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. (APIs are a
set of tools for building software applications.) The apps will be
available for users to download from their respective app

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After this initial phase, Apple and
Google will work to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact
tracing platform, which is intended to be a more robust solution
than an API. More individuals would be able to participate
voluntarily and the platform would enable interaction with a
broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities.

Dave Burke, VP Engineering
(Android) at Google and Bud Tribble, VP of Software Technology at
Apple, appeared on CBS News Sunday Morning on April 19 to
discuss the partnership and the technology. In lay person’s
terms, this is how the technology would work.  An individual
can voluntarily download an app from a government or health agency
onto their Android or iOS phone (the “Public Authority
App”). Through Bluetooth, the Public Authority App will keep
track of all the other phones the user’s phone has been near
throughout the day. Each participating phone will continuously
broadcast Bluetooth beacons, which change frequently (to help
maintain anonymity) and are derived from a cryptographic key. At
the same time, the participating phone will constantly monitor the
phones around them and record the codes of any other phones they
encounter within a certain range and time. If a participating
individual is positively diagnosed with COVID-19, if he so chooses,
he can enter that information in the Public Authority App
which then uploads the cryptographic keys that were used to
generate beacons over the last two weeks to a server.
  If other users of the Public Authority App
“match” with the infected user, (meaning they were near
that infected individual) they will receive an alert that they may
have been exposed. The alert will not disclose who or where the
contact occurred. The entire system is decentralized and opt-in. If
the infected individual does not disclose the positive COVID-19
test through the Public Authority App, all others who were in
contact with him will not get an alert.  

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The COVID-19 pandemic has
underscored the tension between the need of personal information
about infected individuals while preserving their privacy. In their
press release, Google and Apple state that privacy, transparency,
and consent are of “utmost importance in this effort”.
Nevertheless, following the announcement, many commentators raised
privacy concerns, even though it is premised on participant

The development of the technology
renews interest in “privacy by design”, which was a
concept developed in the 1990s to address the privacy concerns
raised by large scale networks of data.  Dr. Ann Cavoukian,
the former Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario and the
now Executive Director of Global Privacy and Security by Design
Centre, has a
of the seven fundamental principles of this
concept. The principles of this concept include that privacy must
be proactive and not reactive by anticipating privacy invasive
events before they happen or materialize.  The concept is also
premised on the principle that privacy is the default setting,
which seeks to deliver maximum privacy protection, even if the
individual does nothing.  Apple has been commended for its
approach to privacy and its renewed focus on privacy by design.
Apple’s Privacy page states that it “designs
Apple product to protect your privacy and give you control over
your information”. This commitment to considering privacy
throughout the design and development process is further echoed in
its Privacy Governance statement, which notes
that Apple “designs products and services according to the
principle of privacy by default” and it collects only the
minimum amount of data necessary to provide users with a product or
service. We also see this theme continued in the contact tracing
project, which states that user privacy and security are central to the

While this initiative has been
largely praised for its privacy-conscious approach (for example,
see letter signed by 300 academics around the
world), it is not without criticism. For example, this initiative
relies on individuals self-reporting, which they may not do. There
is also the potential for false positives, users trolling or
spamming the system or users incorrectly self-diagnosing. Further,
there have been reports that as many as 2.5 billion users
may not be able to use these apps because of geographic
restrictions (e.g., China has banned Google software and services
in the country) or because their devices are outdated or
incompatible. It is important to note that Google and Apple are not
writing the actual apps, but rather are helping public health
agencies create the apps. This creates further questions, like
could the owner of the Public Authority App override any
individual’s decision in order to combat a greater public
health risk? 

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The Google and Apple partnership is
an important initiative that balances the urgent need to prevent
and respond to COVID-19 cases while also protecting user privacy.
Google and Apple have announced their intention to be
transparent. To that end, they have published draft technical documentation and
intend to openly publish information about their work for others to

The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.

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