When Google and Apple joined forces to create contact-tracing technology that would be embedded in Android and iPhone operating systems, they  promised this would be a privacy-friendly alternative to government-led schemes. The companies’ decision to rely on “proximity tracing” rather than location tracking appealed around the world, as countries from Germany to Japan launched national apps based on “GAPPLE” technology.

Last week though, the New York Times that while GAPPLE blocks governments from tracking users’ location, the same rule doesn’t apply to Google – the company requires Android users to turn on their GPS-location setting for the contact-tracing function to work. According to the report, governments have for weeks been quietly pushing the tech giant to drop this requirement – without success. “Users should be able to use such proximity tracing apps without any bindings with other services,” Dr. Sang-Il Kim, head of Switzerland’s virus app, told the Times. 

Although this location data is not collected by the governments themselves, the revelation in effect nullifies the privacy promises many of them had made. Coronavirus tech has a potentially dangerous ability to shape-shift after being introduced. Public opinion could endorse a technology only to find out later that its terms have changed. The GAPPLE protocol reveals this can happen as a result of pressure from policymakers – many not yet from a tech-savvy generation, who miss or misunderstand key elements of these apps’ design.

While any policies can have unintended consequences, or be leveraged for unexpected ends, software is especially slippery because it’s changeable by design. Once introduced, apps remain closely tied to their creators – this helps with upgrades, and enables new features to be woven in at a later date. In Austria, for example, this meant that security gaps could still be fixed after the national Stopp Corona app had been downloaded by 400,000 people. But iterative technologies also mean that updates can quietly add in new capabilities that may catch users by surprise. British iPhone users who updated their phones in June were to find Apple’s contact-tracing feature had been added (but not activated) without seeking their permission.

Governments, too, can change course after an app has launched. Last week, I wrote in this about one of Africa’s first contact-tracing apps, Botswana’s BSafe. A representative of the government’s Covid-19 task force told me the app is currently voluntary although there are plans to make the system mandatory once the government has a policy to navigate the digital divide – the gap between individuals or businesses that have access to the internet and those that don’t.

Coronavirus tech’s ability to morph makes it harder to hold these tools to account. But the GAPPLE revelation demonstrates the need for constant scrutiny of contact-tracing apps even after they’re launched.


Sean McDonald caught my attention before in this newsletter: his experience covering Ebola-tech means he can claim a clear-headed perspective on Covid-19. So I’ll quote him again, this time from an article for which explores the concept of “technology theatre” – the idea that governments use tech tools to create an illusion of productive or effective governance. “When the public is focusing on a technology instead of a holistic solution to address complex policy issues, technology theatre is working,” Sean says. 

In New York, proposed legislation reflects anxieties that data from contact tracing will be repurposed. The would make information gathered by contact tracers inadmissible in court. “Contact tracing is not going to work unless people are confident the information they give to contact tracers is not going to be used against them, is not going to be given to the police, to immigration, or their employer,” Richard Gottfried, one of two lawmakers who introduced the bill, told a New York-based news site.  

Lastly, serious security flaws were last week in South Korea’s quarantine app: officials there acknowledged their priority had been to deploy the app quickly “to save lives”.

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