Google and Apple prioritized privacy with COVID-19 technology, Feinberg said. But will anybody use it?

David Feinberg
Google and Apple took a "privacy-first" approach to develop COVID-19 exposure notification technology, Google Health executive David Feinberg said. (Google)

David Feinberg gave assurances Thursday that Google and Apple took a "privacy-first" approach to develop COVID-19 exposure notification technology that can aid public health agencies in tracking the virus.

The former health system CEO said consumers have to opt in, and Google and Apple will not have any information about who tests positive or negative for the coronavirus.

"We have to make sure people feel comfortable in what we’re doing," said Feinberg, vice president of Google Health, speaking during the Virtual Summit on Health System Recovery from the COVID-19 Pandemic conference Thursday.

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"[The technology] literally just gives the connector to the public health agency and the public health agency does the notification," he said.

In early April, the two tech giants announced they were collaborating to build Bluetooth-based technology to aid in the fight against the pandemic. It marked an unprecedented step for the companies to collaborate on a high-tech approach to track coronavirus cases.

Apple and Google's exposure notification application programming interface (API) rolled out May 20 and is now available to states, public health agencies and governments to build apps that will notify people via smartphone if they've come into contact with someone with the coronavirus.

The contact tracing apps only work if people voluntarily indicate that they tested positive for COVID-19.

Smartphone technology can be a more efficient way to track down and reach out to everyone who has been in touch with someone infected with COVID-19, which is a task usually carried out by human contact tracers, Feinberg said.

The API does not track users' locations, he said.

The technology uses Bluetooth in people's smartphones to keep a log of other devices that come within six feet and have been in proximity longer than 15 minutes. When integrated with an app, this can be used to notify a user that they've crossed paths with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

The goal is to isolate new patients and prevent a renewed spread of the virus.

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Apple and Google have agreed to disable this exposure notification on a regional basis when it is no longer needed, Feinberg said.

But digital contact tracing technology continues to raise significant privacy concerns.

According to a survey from Avira of 2,000 U.S. consumers, the majority (70%) said they do not plan to download or use a COVID-19 contact tracing app due to digital privacy concerns.

State attorneys general also want assurances from the tech giants about the privacy and security of their APIs. Earlier this month, 39 members of the National Association of Attorneys General sent a letter to the CEOs of Google and Apple asking them to ensure all contact tracing and exposure notification apps related to COVID-19 adequately protect consumers’ personal information.  

Questions also have been raised about the effectiveness of digital contact tracing tools as a sizeable majority of citizens must download the software for it to be effective. Experts estimate that 60% of a country’s population would need to use the app for it to be effective in preventing a second wave of infections.

France was one of the first Western countries to build an app to track exposure to COVID-19, but, so far, uptake has been slow. France’s app does not use Apple and Google's software.

France's StopCovid app has been activated 1.8 million times since June 2, corresponding roughly to 2.7% of the country’s population, one of the lowest rates in Europe. The French app has led to the notification of just 14 people that they may have been exposed to the virus, French officials said this week, according to The Wall Street Journal.

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In May, Apple said 22 countries have requested and received access to the API. Germany, Poland and Saudi Arabia have rolled out contact tracing apps built on top of the Apple-Google software.

Some other participating countries include Italy, Latvia and Switzerland.

So far, no U.S. states are using the Google-Apple software.

"Many U.S. states are interested in it," Feinberg said, noting that North Dakota is "the closest" to using it.

"It's one tool to allow places to open up again. It is a technologically thoughtful way of doing contact training and exposure notification," he said.

The smartphone apps that have been launched in the U.S. using other software are mostly buggy, little-used or not ready for major rollouts, the WSJ reported.

Centers for Disease Prevention and Control Director Robert Redfield, M.D., also has played down the value of digital contact tracing tools.

“Clearly these new digital technologies that have been developed for contact tracing are important to be evaluated,” he said during a recent House hearing, according to Politico.

"The most important component of contact tracing, we believe, is the human capacity” to perform the task, Redfield said, based on Politico's reporting.

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