Skip to Content
Tech policy

Google and Apple ban location tracking in their contact tracing apps

The technology giants have laid out new rules for those using their upcoming exposure notification system.
Experts consider contact tracing a crucial tool for returning society to normal.
Experts consider contact tracing a crucial tool for returning society to normal.
Experts consider contact tracing a crucial tool for returning society to normal.Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash

The news: Apple and Google have announced that their coronavirus tracing technology will ban the use of location tracking. The announcement could create potential complications for some apps that planned to use the two companies’ system for notifying people of potential exposure to covid-19.

The what: Contact tracing is the process of tracking and contacting people who have been potentially exposed to an infectious disease, and experts consider it a crucial tool in returning society to normal amid the coronavirus pandemic. While the key part of such efforts remains very human—armies of tens of thousands of people will be involved in the US alone—new technology could complement the manual efforts. That’s why many people were excited when Apple and Google revealed they were developing technology that would allow national health authorities around the world to build apps for contact tracing and exposure notification. The full system, which uses Bluetooth signals to determine how close you have come to diagnosed covid-19 patients, is expected to be released by the middle of May. Developers have an early version of the system now.

The rules: As well as their ban on location sharing, the Silicon Valley titans released a set of other requirements for developers today. Among them: only government health authorities can create apps; all apps must get user consent before using the Exposure Notification API; and a second consent is required before sharing positive test results and “diagnosis keys” with public health authorities. Finally, data collection must be minimized and used only for health response. Other uses of the data is banned: it cannot be used for targeted advertising or policing.

Why it matters: The new technology will be built into iOS and Android operating systems, which account for the vast majority of all smartphones. The technology aims to avoid fragmentation between different systems and instead allow all these phones to work together, a key requirement for successful contact tracing efforts. Today’s announcements are an attempt to roll that out while maintaining user privacy and staving off potential abuse.

Deep Dive

Tech policy

afghans targeted by biometric data
afghans targeted by biometric data

This is the real story of the Afghan biometric databases abandoned to the Taliban

By capturing 40 pieces of data per person—from iris scans and family links to their favorite fruit—a system meant to cut fraud in the Afghan security forces may actually aid the Taliban.

thermal image of young woman wearing mask
thermal image of young woman wearing mask

The covid tech that is intimately tied to China’s surveillance state

Heat-sensing cameras and face recognition systems may help fight covid-19—but they also make us complicit in the high-tech oppression of Uyghurs.

conceptual illustration showing layers of imagery that reference surveillance, policing, and domestic violence
conceptual illustration showing layers of imagery that reference surveillance, policing, and domestic violence

How Amazon Ring uses domestic violence to market doorbell cameras

Partnerships with law enforcement give smart cameras to the survivors of domestic violence. But who does it really help?

Why you should be more concerned about internet shutdowns

Governments are turning off the internet to silence dissenters at an ‘exponential’ rate—and threatening civil society, says the chief operating officer of Google’s Jigsaw project.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.