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Getting Back To Normal: Big Tech's Solution Depends On Public Trust

Public health experts say smartphone apps could augment the time-consuming work of tracking down people who have been exposed to the coronavirus.
Public health experts say smartphone apps could augment the time-consuming work of tracking down people who have been exposed to the coronavirus.

For something like normal life to return after the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is over, it will be critical to identify — and isolate — people who have been exposed to the virus, whether or not they have symptoms.

Two Silicon Valley giants and some public health experts say our smartphones could help get us there.

Apple and Google are setting aside their traditional rivalry to team up on a new system for contact tracing, using apps.

Contact tracing is the process of tracking down the people with whom infected patients have interacted, and making sure they get tested or go into quarantine.

Public health workers must ask patients a series of questions about where they have gone and who they have met. Then, they have to find those people. It's a critical, but time-consuming process.

The system Apple and Google are creating uses Bluetooth signals to help identify contacts the traditional method may miss.

Smartphones equipped with Bluetooth can "send out anonymous little chirps, little messages that other phones can listen to," said Daniel Weitzner. He is a research scientist at MIT, who's been working on a similar contact-tracing project.

Imagine two people, Alice and Bob, are sitting on a park bench. Their phones give off Bluetooth signals. The phones also record the signals they receive.

If Bob comes down with COVID-19, he can mark himself as infected in an app from his public health department. The system would then use the record of those anonymous Bluetooth signals to warn anyone whose phone has come near his in the last two weeks — including Alice. She would then know to get tested for the virus.

Using smartphones this way would not replace traditional contact tracing, but would expand its reach "because you may not remember who you were on the bus with, or you may not have known those people," said Dr. Louise Ivers, executive director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Global Health. She is advising Weitzner's project at MIT.

It could also free up public health officials to focus on people who don't have smartphones or are particularly vulnerable.

The technology is not a fail-safe. Bluetooth signals reach further than the six feet we are told to stay apart. And for the system to be effective, a lot of people need to participate.

"We need the network effect of everyone being able to hear all of these chirps," Weitzner said.

Apple and Google said they don't yet know how many people need to opt in to see an impact. In Singapore, a million people have downloaded a government-created contact-tracing app. But Lawrence Wong, the national development minister, told the Straits Times newspaper that 75% of the population would have to use the app to make it effective.

That's why Apple and Google are working together to make sure their Bluetooth system works across their phones. About 3 billion people around the world have either an iPhone or Android. If a lot of them opt in, this system could make a difference.

But convincing people to trust the tech giants with this new form of surveillance is a challenge.

Representatives for Apple and Google emphasized that the Bluetooth messages do not reveal who sent them, or from where.

Weitzner said the Bluetooth concept works by identifying proximity, not location. "We don't need to know where you were close to someone, just that you were close to someone," he said.

Apple and Google are also limiting their system to public health agencies. The companies said governments cannot force people to turn on Bluetooth tracking.

To protect privacy, the Bluetooth signals are random numbers that stay on your phone. That means not even Apple or Google can trace where you've been or whom you've come in contact with.

Even with these precautions, some people worry about the implications of unleashing this technology.

Ashkan Soltani is a former chief technologist at the Federal Trade Commission.

"The concern is that if we start deploying policies based on this information," he said. "Whether we require, for example, people to have used this app and to provide ... their score on the app in order to, for example, return back to work or use public transportation."

He pointed to China, where people have to show their color-coded results in an app to move around in public. Green means you're free to go about your life. Yellow or red means you are stuck in quarantine.

Apple and Google say they'll release their system next month.

Democrats in Congress have already warned that they will keep a close eye on how the tech giants handle privacy.

Editor's note: Apple and Google are among NPR's sponsors.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.