Health officials: COVID-19 contact tracing app from Apple & Google likely useless

Despite early excitement, virus-tracing apps built by Apple and Google are likely useless, according to health officials. CNET senior producer Dan Patterson joined CBSN to talk about why this once promising technology now looks to be a failure.
In April, Apple and Google announced a joint plan to help trace the spread of COVID-19 by alerting users when they apparently came into contact with people who were positive. These applications were rolled out by state and local agencies, but subsequent operating system updates fall under the domain of the tech companies, where Patterson said the problem is. "The Bluetooth capabilities of these applications and operating system updates aren't up to speed to the degree that Apple and Google initially claimed," he told CBSN's Reena Ninan.

The limited capabilities of these app updates are due to restrictions placed by these tech companies on developers which are not uncommon. "These restrictions are in place to protect these companies' business models as well as the technical foundations of the operating systems," Patterson explained.

"They do have to be very careful in what they reveal in their own technical specifications and what they allow developers to access because once you allow certain parts of code to be accessed, you can't put the genie back in the bottle," Patterson added.

Updating issues aside, another problem stems from Apple and Google's reluctance to share this private health data with local, state and federal agencies. This struggle between tech and government comes at a time when public trust in both is at an all time low. "You can imagine how this particular standoff illustrates the delicate balance between public safety on one and and public privacy on the other hand," Patterson said. "Apple and Google want to protect the privacy of their users."

Without a concise policy from the government, the tech companies are left to make decisions about the implications of the data they collect. "These companies have to effectively create policy every time they make decisions about privacy. On the one hand they indicated that they do want to be as helpful as possible but on the other hand they have to protect the privacy of their users," Patterson said.

Without the full consent of data sharing from these tech companies, Patterson said it remains to be seen whether or not these apps can be effectively used for contact tracing. "It will be challenging without these OS and applications having full access to data and sharing," he said.

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