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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.

Go deeper

Nov 13, 2020 - Health

Oregon and New Mexico enter partial lockdowns

Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty

The governors of Oregon and New Mexico issued two-week, partial lockdowns in their respective states on Friday.

Why it matters: The U.S. has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases over the last few weeks. Though officials have hesitated to reinstate the sweeping measures they enforced during the first wave, states are facing increased pressure as case numbers rise and hospital beds fill.

Nov 14, 2020 - Health

COVID hits first cruise ship to return to Caribbean since pandemic stalled industry

The Seadream 1 ship docks in Bodo in Norway in August 2020. Photo: Sondre Skjelvik/NTB Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

The first cruiseliner to return to the Caribbean since the coronavirus pandemic shut the industry down was forced to return to its home port of Barbados after passengers tested positive for COVID-19, the ship's owner, SeaDream Yacht Club, said Thursday.

Why it matters: Cruise ships were the sites of some of the most severe coronavirus outbreaks early in the pandemic, before the industry suspended operations in March.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus may have been in U.S. in December 2019, study finds — Hospital crisis deepens as holiday season nears.
  2. Politics: Bipartisan group of senators unveil $908 billion COVID stimulus proposalFDA chief was called to West Wing to explain why agency hasn't moved faster on vaccine — The words that actually persuade people on the pandemic
  3. Vaccine: Moderna to file for FDA emergency use authorizationVaccinating rural America won't be easy — Being last in the vaccine queue is young people's next big COVID test.
  4. States: Cuomo orders emergency hospital protocols as New York's COVID capacity dwindles.
  5. World: European regulators to assess first COVID-19 vaccine by Dec. 29
  6. 🎧 Podcast: The state of play of the top vaccines.

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