Tracking the Spread

While most of us are getting used to the new normal of quarantine and social distance, for tech companies it is a brave new world of close collaboration. We looked at the mutually beneficial partnership between long-time frenemies Apple and Amazon, and now Apple has entered into an unprecedented, globally beneficial relationship with perpetual rivals Google.

This week Apple and Google announced that they’ve come together to create a decentralized, contact-tracing tool to help people around the world determine whether they have been exposed to COVID-19. 

By not only identifying and tracking the sick but alerting people who have come into contact with a COVID-19-positive person, contact-tracing helps public health authorities monitor the spread of the disease.

And we need it, because right now we’re just guessing.

Currently in the US our statistical models are sketchy, and our testing is minimal. The best chance we have of getting a real handle on the virus is to begin to understand how far and how fast it’s spreading. 

Contact-tracing was instrumental in slowing the spread of COVID-19 in South Korea, China, Taiwan, and Singapore, where citizens were willing to comply with state tracking, and governments were (and still are) rolling out technology to track the infected, as well as those they come in contact with.

By the way, there is no way to write about “tracking the infected” and make it not sound like a zombie movie, so we’re just going to lean into it. OK? OK. 

Apple and Google aren’t alone in their efforts, and MIT previously created an app, inspired by Apple’s Find My system, that would track the infected (see??) while maintaining user privacy. But MIT and the other organizations working on similar technology ran into technical hurdles, and reached out to Apple and Google for help. 

And in this weird age of socially distant togetherness, help arrived.

In case you feel like MIT’s thunder was stolen, understand that ultimately Apple and Google were necessary for a project like this because operability between devices and operating systems has to be seamless if a program like this is to work and be beneficial to health officials and to the populace.

Plus, these two companies are woven into almost every facet of our lives. When they choose to use it, between them they have access to the location data of…well, nearly everyone. Our phones have become part of us and, by extension, Apple and Google have, too. When Tectonix tracked the secondary locations of a group of spring break partiers, we got a sense of just how granular phone-based tracking can be


Phases and Privacy 


The contact tracking project will happen in two phases: 

In mid-May, both companies will release APIs that enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. 

Those official apps will be available for all users to download in Google Play and App Store. 

The second phase, rolling out over the next few months, will enable broader Bluetooth tracing by building functionality into the underlying platforms. This is a far more powerful solution than an API, and means more people will be able to participate, and the tracing system will be compatible with a broader range of government authorities and apps. 

We get it. The idea of the government tracking the infected and the healthy is a little weird and more-than-a-little dystopian.

But so is a global pandemic with burial pits so large you can see them from space. And think about this: If you’re wearing an Apple Watch right now,  would get a response if you said “hey, Google” aloud in your house, or have ever logged in to Facebook, you’re already being tracked. 

Privacy is in many ways illusory in 2020, so we might as well use our hyper-connectedness for good. And it’s difficult to think of a better cause than to slow the spread of a virus that has infected 657,720. 

By the time we finish typing this piece, that number will be higher. So if we have the technology, let’s use it. 

Of privacy, Apple says:

Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders. We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyze.

They were anticipating the kind of controversy that’s dogged other tracing projects and, as if on cue, Trump hauled out some weird boogeyman, implying that an opt-in tracking project is a Constitutional violation.

We don’t have to say that he’s wrong, do we? That’s obvious, right? Good. 

Already, 27 members of the EU seem ready to adopt the Apple/Google tracing API, but it is those very privacy concerns that are causing hesitation. But not in the way Donald thinks. 

European critics wonder if a centralized model, where all of the data is held on a server, might not offer better potential for managing the pandemic than the decentralized model we’re seeing here. The Apple/Google API retains data only on the phone itself unless the owner (1) tests positive and (2) gives permission for their Bluetooth contact codes to be uploaded.

Remember when we said contact-tracing was instrumental in slowing the spread of COVID-19 in East Asia? Well that’s true, but the success of the tracing was underpinned by the largely collectivist philosophy that runs throughout those nations.

We don’t have that here, so for something like this to really work, a certain level of mass cooperation is required. But, as individuals, we can decide to collectively come together to participate, voluntarily, in a program that could save lives. 

It’ll work. We’ve seen it, and we can reproduce it.

Sometimes the Big Guys are the Good Guys 


It’s really amazing to see these two rivals join together and in a staggering two weeks create something with the potential to do such immense good. The two companies most uniquely qualified to do so have not only set aside their competitive differences but have created a workable solution that maintains privacy. 

It matters. It matters not only in this historical moment but down the line as consumers when we look for a product. Who stepped up? Who cared? Who made a difference when it mattered most?

Opt in. Do something. 


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