Apple, Google Ban GPS Location Tracking From Their Contact Tracing System

Apple and Google stated they would ban using location tracking in apps using their new contact tracing system to track the spread of COVID-19. In April, Apple and Google announced that they would collaborate to create a notification system to alert those who have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. The tech giants are only going to allow public health officials to use this technology.

The system works by using Bluetooth signals from phones to trace contact, therefore, it is not using or retaining GPS location data. Both Apple and Google stated “privacy and preventing governments from using the system to compile data on citizens was a primary goal.” However, coronavirus–related app developers noted that it was key that they could use GPS data in addition to this contact tracing system to track the spread and identify virus hotspots.

Since Apple and Google have banned collecting GPS data using their system health officials that want GPS data must use “workarounds” to access this information. iPhones and Androids turn Bluetooth off after a certain amount of time to save battery life unless a user deliberately turns it on; therefore, other contact tracing systems are likely to miss some contact despite other apps’ intent to keep their own method.

For example, Twenty, a software company that developed Utah’s Healthy Together contact tracing app which utilizes GPS and Bluetooth, stated its app “operates effectively” without Apple and Google’s system. The software company also noted that “[i]f their approach can be more effective than our current solution, we’ll eagerly incorporate their features into our existing application, provided it meets the specifications of current and prospective public health partners.”

Apple and Google claimed they “will allow only one app per country to use the contact system, to avoid fragmentation and encourage wider adoption.” They noted that they would support a state or regional approach too.

Privacy experts are cautious about concealing health-related location data, which could affect businesses and individuals if the data is disclosed. Apple and Google’s announcement comes after some Senators have introduced a data privacy bill for contact tracing and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) stated that contact tracing should be voluntary.