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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.

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