Efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic have essentially shut down the economy. Now, as regions now look to reopen, the focus is shifting to minimizing further infection by monitoring the virus’s spread and notifying people who may have been exposed to it. Public health authorities around the globe have deployed or are developing contact-tracing or contact-notification mobile apps. Apple and Google have partnered to develop a Bluetooth-based, contact notification application programming interface, now available as an update for their mobile operating systems.
In this episode of Big Tech, co-hosts David Skok and Taylor Owen speak with Carly Kind, director of the Ada Lovelace Institute, an organization studying issues around data and artificial intelligence. In April, the institute published a report on digital contact tracing called Exit through the App Store.
There are concerns about this technology’s rapid and expansive rollout. First, around data collection: some jurisdictions are developing their apps to store data centrally rather than at device level. Next, technical considerations: for example, Bluetooth-based apps only register proximity and don’t account for other metrics, such as whether the contact happened outdoors, where infection risk is lower. Further, there are concerns about Apple and Google’s tech-focused solution, which infringes on the public health space: “From a power and control perspective, you can’t help but feel somewhat afraid that two companies control almost every device in every hand in the world and are able to wield that power in ways that contradict, right or wrong, the desires of national governments and public health authorities,” Kind cautions. Finally, there are concerns about how health-tracking apps, and our access to them, could impact our freedom to move about: we need to think about the ways these apps could marginalize individuals who don’t have the technology to prove their health status.