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New survey data indicates that consumer privacy concerns may undercut efforts by Apple and Google to limit the spread of coronavirus through an opt-in contact tracing program. Smartphone users who opt in to the contact tracing program will emit an anonymized identifier, which would be received and logged by the smartphones of nearby participants.
If someone receives a positive diagnosis for the coronavirus, that information could be disseminated through the log of anonymized identifiers, letting others know they came in contact with an infectious individual and may therefore be at risk of having coronavirus themselves. Openpath Chief Security Officer Samy Kamkar told us that Apple and Google — which announced their collaborative initiative on April 10 — designed the program “with a lot of thought surrounding user and consumer privacy.” Based on the released specifications, Kamkar noted that contact tracing logs would be stored locally on smartphones, and that only an approved health organization would be able to access servers that store positive diagnosis identifiers.
But most US adults either don’t own a smartphone or don’t plan to opt-in to contact tracing, limiting the effectiveness of the program. Contact tracing apps require widespread adoption to be effective in curbing the spread of the coronavirus. But 18% of US adults don’t even own a smartphone, and of those who do, half said they would not use a contact-tracing app from Apple or Google, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland national poll conducted last week.
Privacy concerns about big tech appear to be a driving factor, as 56% of those surveyed said they wouldn’t trust tech companies like Apple and Google to ensure that diagnosis information remains anonymous. Prominent privacy advocate and whistleblower Edward Snowden warned that datasets and population tracking capabilities tend to remain in place even after emergencies subside, citing the continued presence of warrantless wiretapping capabilities initiated in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The lack of buy-in for contact tracing programs puts Apple and Google in a double bind that will likely result in a decline of positive consumer sentiment. If a critical mass of US adults choose not to opt-in to contact tracing, then the program simply won’t be effective. This would likely confirm the suspicions of many privacy-minded consumers, who perceive the program as a ruse for big tech and the US government to collect sensitive consumer data. This outcome would also mark a significant missed opportunity for Apple and Google to flex their technological prowess and win consumer trust, which could accelerate buy-in for their respective health care initiatives.
Another possible outcome for contact tracing: Participation could be opt-in in theory but mandated in practice, by making access to employment and public spaces predicated on participation. This could make contact tracing more effective, but it would betray the spirit of the program and potentially sow further consumer mistrust towards big tech. This double bind presents a significant challenge for Apple and Google, and the outcome will have significant, lasting implications on consumer sentiment towards big tech.
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