Aug 6, 2020 - Health

HRW chief praises Apple, Google's contact tracing as privacy "gold standard"

Screenshot of Kim Hart and Kenneth Roth
Axios' Kim Hart and Kenneth Roth. Photo: Axios

The Bluetooth-based contact tracing system designed by Apple and Google is a current "gold standard" for prioritizing privacy when tracking the spread of the virus, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth told Axios' Kim Hart at a virtual event Thursday.

Why it matters: Without a vaccine, promptly notifying those who have possibly been exposed to the coronavirus and encouraging self-quarantine is one of the best mitigation tools available.

What they're saying: "These apps are a useful supplement. But the question really, is to what extent do they respect privacy," Roth said, pointing to early examples in South Korea in which contact tracing technology revealed intimate details of people's lives.

  • "There was recognition that for these contact tracing apps to work, for people to adopt them voluntarily ... they were going to have to respect privacy," Roth said.
  • "And Google and Apple stepped in with a joint venture and produced an app that really I think, is a gold standard with respect to privacy."

How it works: Distance between two people using Google and Apple's contact tracing system is calculated by the strength of the Bluetooth signal between their devices instead of GPS.

  • Other privacy wins for the system include not identifying the infector, not putting the data in a central database that the government could access, and only retaining the data as long as necessary for contact tracing efforts, Roth said.

Yes, but: Using the Bluetooth-based system on an Android phone still supplies users' location data to Google, Roth said.

  • "And so while that doesn't necessarily go to government, it goes to Google. And they haven't been able to divorce those two capacities. So that's a problem," he added.
  • Countries like Russia have also used Google and Apple's platforms to supply apps that enforce quarantine efforts through fines and soliciting selfies from users to prove their location — which are "problematic uses" that the companies should shut down on their app stores, Roth said.
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