US states, tech giants lock horns over use of sensitive GPS location data in contact tracing apps

For the apps to work, people must be willing to use them despite their locations and other personal data being tracked and stored

                            US states, tech giants lock horns over use of sensitive GPS location data in contact tracing apps
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US states endorsing contact tracing apps that could help curb the coronavirus lockdown may clash with two Silicon Valley companies that control the crucial software on most smartphones, on grounds of collection of sensitive personal GPS data, Reuters has reported.

Google and Apple Inc are collaborating with the government on a digital contact tracing technology via Bluetooth sensors on the phone, which will be released in upcoming weeks.

Public health officials have asserted that the new technology is pivotal to apps that will alert people when they come in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

For contact tracing apps to function, however, people need to consent to use them without the fear of their personal data or location being tracked or stored. 

Google and Apple are working together to gain the public’s trust by making necessary changes to Bluetooth to allow the tracing apps to operate in a way that will not violate privacy by tapping into the phone’s GPS sensors. 

However, the states that are developing the apps, North and South Dakota, and Utah are saying that allowing the public officials to use GPS with Bluetooth will make this system more feasible.

The Bluetooth technology will notify users when they cross paths with a coronavirus carrier but won’t provide any other information like where it happened which is crucial to authorities to identify hotspots so they can immediately implement measures. Apple and Google said on April 24 that they still have not decided how to proceed.

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"I would encourage them to go for the 'and' and not the 'or' solution," said Doug Burgum, the North Dakota Governor on Apple and Google on April 23. "During this new normal, there is a place for having solutions that protect privacy and enable more efficient contact tracing," he added.

Incognito GPS location data is already a key player in an app called ‘Care19’ that 40,000 people have signed up for in North and South Dakota. Authorities are asking the users of the app to grant them permission to timestamp their GPS location data so they can determine where users may have spread the virus and also find contact details of others who were there at the same time

However, this arduous process will not be necessary with Apple and Google’s new Bluetooth technology, which will automatically catalog meetings with people and allows for the virus carriers to anonymously convey to the ones who are at potential risk to get tested.

Utah launched the ‘Healthy Together’ app on April 22 which only records encounters between people. Its developers hope that Apple and Google won’t force them to adopt more precarious Bluetooth technology. "What Utah wanted to understand is not just who is spreading [the virus] to whom but also location zones," said Jared Allgood, chief strategy officer for Twenty, the startup which developed Utah’s app.

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The GPS location data also enable authorities to determine which business needs to be closed for being a hotspot for the spread of the disease and prioritize the contacts of patients that need testing. "Is it happening in a park, a Costco or a Walmart? They are trying to make policy decisions that move our economy from a broad-based 'everything is shut down' to a more targeted approach," Allgood said in an interview on April 24.

However, Privacy experts have issued warnings that any health issue related location data could make businesses and individuals liable to being shunned if the data is exposed. Allgood said the Utah app asks users for their phone number, but the location data is anonymously stored in a server provided by Amazon Web Services. "We don’t see a reason why Apple or Google would not allow us to participate in their tools," said Diesel Peltz, Twenty’s CEO.

Burgum is confident that the two tech giants will permit the collection of location data after seeing collection seeing the guidelines Care19 has put in place, including not asking for users' names, phone numbers or email addresses.

"Some people are completely opposed to an intrusion on privacy but there's a younger generation sharing their location on dozens of apps," said Burgum. "There may be a set of people highly social, young, and going out to bars who may see this tool as fantastic."

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