Trump throws cold water on Apple-Google's contact tracing system

Trump throws cold water on Apple-Google's contact tracing system
Last week, we told you that Apple and Google were getting together to fight COVID-19 through contact tracking. This will work by allowing both iOS and Android phones to anonymously keep track of other people who pass nearby every five minutes. These anonymous connections are stored in a database on these phones for a couple of weeks. If one of these people has tested positive for coronavirus and has opted-in to the contact tracking, he or she reports this to an app offered by a public health authority. All of the people in his or her phone's database will be alerted that they were in close contact with someone who has contracted COVID-19.

If you do receive a notice that someone you were near has tested positive for coronavirus, the hope is that you will then get tested to prevent it from being spread further. And if a doctor determines that you have contracted COVID-19, those people you were close to over the previous two weeks will be notified.

Trump says that some people have "very big constitutional problems" with Apple and Google's contact tracing system

Just to make this clear, starting in May, apps developed for official government health organizations can use the APIs that Apple and Google are building together. These apps will be available from the App Store and Google Play Store and will work only in certain regions of the country. Later this year, both mobile platforms will receive an update allowing users to opt-in to contact tracking without having to install an app,. Instead, Bluetooth LE will be employed to build the database containing phones in a user's vicinity.

Both Apple and Google have been working on this initiative since late March and both can remove the contact tracing system regionally if it is no longer needed. Also, users will have to verify a positive test to prevent false positive results from infiltrating the system.

This afternoon, President Trump proved that he doesn't quite understand what opt-in means. According to 9to5 Mac, during his daily coronavirus briefing, the president said, "It’s an amazing thing, but a lot of people have some very big constitutional problems with it, you know that. It’s an amazing thing, and it would be, as you know other other countries, are thinking about using something similar but not as good. I hear Singapore is, Singapore had a little bit of a setback because they had a break, you know that, but they’ll take care of it...We have more of a constitutional problem than a mechanical problem, but we will be making a determination on that. That’s something we’re gonna be discussing with a lot of people over the next four weeks. That would be a very accurate way of doing it, but a lot of people have a problem with it."

What Trump might not understand is that not only is this contact tracking system opt-in only, it does not collect location data or data that can personally identify a user. The list of phones that someone has been in proximity to is never taken from his or her handset. As we've pointed out, only public health authorities involved in COVID-19 contact tracing will be involved in this system, and the name of a person who tests positive is never revealed to other users; more importantly, Apple and Google can not obtain any data from the contact tracing.

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It isn't clear what kind of determination Trump has to make in regard to Apple and Google's contact tracing system. While apps from public health authorities are involved in the plan, and the president might be able to prevent them from cooperating, others are run by states and these don't require consent from the federal government to get involved.

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