Contact Tracing and the Future of Technology Governance

On April 10, Apple and Google announced their partnership to build a Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform. Set to launch in May, the API would allow public health authorities to develop apps that would use the Bluetooth functionality on Android and iOS devices. In the months after, the companies plan to integrate contact tracing into their operating systems. As their documentation states, it will not use location data, instead using Bluetooth beaconing to detect proximity. Each person’s identifiers are reset every 14 days. [1] In fact, the companies recently announced that they would ban location tracking on the apps that use their platform. Users must consent before their data is shared with the server if they test positive. [2] The entire platform is opt-in. (See the graphic for more info)

Source: Wall Street Journal.

In countries like China, South Korea, and Singapore, digital contact tracing has shown its potential. For the US, widespread and effective tracing is necessary in order to safely return to normal life. Traditional contact tracing, performed through in-person interviews, would simply take too long. Now, more than ever, we need swift action. The Apple/Google approach is logical compared to other alternatives, like fully centralized government surveillance, working with phone companies, or building up a new platform from scratch. Much of the infrastructure needed already exists within the scope of Apple and Google – smartphones and Bluetooth, software engineers, money, as well as a collective user base of over three billion people. [3]

However, technologies created during times of crisis often outlive their original purposes. There are serious concerns to deploying digital contact tracing in the US and it is imperative that they are addressed now to set a good model for the future. Ultimately, the responsibility should fall on the government, specifically the federal government, to spearhead regulations, hold corporations and itself accountable, communicate clearly to the public, and provide the necessary funding and support. Given its lax and disorganized approach to combating the virus so far, a successful rollout of contact tracing is crucial. This should be viewed as an opportunity for the government to step up, regain the trust of the public, and set an example of good technology governance for the future. There are three important considerations: ensuring user privacy from both Apple/Google and public health authorities, scaling the user base, and building up other parts of the COVID-19 response. 

We must ensure privacy from governments and corporations.

Firstly, deploying a contact tracing technology raises serious privacy concerns for users. Contact tracing will use functionalities on personal smartphones, run on software from two of the world’s most pervasive tech giants, and monitor activity through government apps. [4] Even though Apple and Google have banned the use of location data, sensitive user data – like test results and individual identifiers – will flow through a highly integrated system of private and government software. It would be easy to exploit privacy if the appropriate restrictions are not in place.

Within governments, contact tracing technologies could easily be expanded into surveillance campaigns, especially as a crisis response. The US already has a history of surveillance. After 9/11, the government enacted the War on Terror, increasing web and phone surveillance under the Patriot Act. [5] The Patriot Act made it easier for the government to spy on Americans via phone conversations, email records, bank and credit transactions, and Internet activity. [6] In fact, Google collaborated with government agencies to develop, commercialize, and deploy these surveillance technologies, for example, a search engine capable of scanning millions of documents. [7]

Already, we see how opaque contact tracing can be. In China, Alipay Health Code, which assigns each person a color to indicate their quarantine status, leaves citizens in the dark about why they were assigned certain colors. Moreover, it sends data on the user’s location, city name, and identifying number to a server after the user grants the software access to personal data. [8] Singapore’s TraceTogether app, which has emphasized privacy and user consent, requires users to register with their contact information and has been shown to allow third-party tracking of Bluetooth IDs, as well as government collection of data without user permission. [9] The current Apple/Google proposal is yet another public-private partnership that will integrate government agendas within private software. To be clear, this kind of partnership is necessary to roll out an effective tracing program, but it cannot be abused. It is imperative that contact tracing is specifically tailored to tracking COVID-19 (and not anything else). Business leaders and public authorities must be completely transparent about how and why data is collected and used.

Green = free to move in public; Yellow = suspected positive / in quarantine; Red = confirmed COVID-19 patient

Apple, Google, and any private app developer must be held accountable as well. While they stress privacy, large tech corporations like Google and Apple have histories of skirting regulation in order to protect their business models — lobbying at the national and state level, as well as funding certain campaigns and antigovernment groups. These companies are often referred to as “surveillance capitalists” who leverage their wealth of user data to turn over profits. [10]

Hence, just like we cannot have a surveillance state, we cannot afford corporate encroachments on privacy. Ideally, the code should be open-source. Data should be audited by the CDC or Department of Health and made available to the public on an anonymized, aggregate level. [11] Data collection and tracing must be completely terminated in all forms after the crisis ends. Individuals should also have the freedom to turn off the apps, particularly if they are engaging in sensitive activities like visiting the doctor. [12] While Apple and Google assure that they will stop tracking after the pandemic ends, their second phase entails building the tracing into their operating systems, which would further embed contact tracing into smartphone technology. [13]

We need a large enough user base.

Secondly, in order for this project to actually work, users need to be incentivized to download the apps. As an example, for Singapore’s TraceTogether to be effective, the government has deemed that at least ¾ of residents must download the app. As of recently, TraceTogether has only accrued 1.4 million users, out of the city-state’s 5.7 million residents, because citizens were worried about how the data was being handled by the government. [14, 15]

Deploying a similar technology in the US will likely face similar issues, especially since Americans are protective of their personal data and wary of the government and large corporations. [16] In a recent poll by the Washington Post and University of Maryland, only 41% of Americans said they would use the Apple/Google platform. [17] These numbers are not promising. Hence, communication and transparency are key. After taking steps to ensure user privacy, government leaders must clearly communicate to the public why users should download the app, what the potential risks are, and what will be done to alleviate them. People should not be forced to use contact tracing apps, but they should feel motivated and comfortable doing so.

Technology should not be the only solution.

And lastly, this is only part of the broader solution. Digital contact tracing should not replace traditional contact tracing, which provides more detail and depth through in-person interviews. Instead, it should supplement a robust taskforce of human contact tracers. Moreover, for any contact tracing system to work, there needs to be accurate and accessible testing, which is severely lacking in the US. Testing should be available to anyone who needs it and not behind a wall of forms, processes, and requirements. Once someone tests positive, they must then be informed on exactly what to do and have the resources to do so. The same goes for people who have been in close proximity and are alerted by the app.

One important consideration is that the success of digital contact tracing hinges on users owning smartphones. According to the same poll, 18% of Americans do not own a smartphone. This group includes disproportionately more people who are more susceptible to the physical and financial effects of COVID-19, like seniors and low-income individuals. [18] Not addressing this disparity could further permeate existing socioeconomic divides. A white paper from the Harvard Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics shows the potential of producing dedicated, Bluetooth-only devices at only $10 each, which could significantly increase use of the platform. [19]

Parting thoughts… 

Currently, there is no mention of digital contact tracing in the official White House guidelines. Hence, it is necessary for the government to step up in all areas for contact tracing of its COVID-19 response for contact tracing of any form to be effective.

This, of course, is no easy task. But if there’s anyone in a position to do so, it should be our government leaders. Digital contact tracing has the potential to stamp down the virus, but only if it is developed and managed responsibly. While we should not rely solely on technology (policy, research, and individual common sense are essential) to solve our problems, technologies built today will undoubtedly change the way public health is managed in the future. There are serious concerns that we need to address, but this should also be seen as an opportunity to establish a responsible framework for technology governance. 

It’s easy for privacy and equality to take a backseat in times of crisis. To be honest, there are many ways that contact tracing could go wrong. Hence, proper management, regulation, accountability, and strong communication are key. To do so, we need a government who is unafraid to hold corporations accountable, build privacy and equality into its apps, enact strong policies to protect its users, and take steps to rebuild our shattered public trust. Instead of hastily sending people back to work, leaders at every level should be taking the time to completely understand and assess the implications of emerging technologies, because they will affect us in more ways than we know.


  1. Apple, and Google. “Contact Tracing – Bluetooth Specification v1.1,” n.d.
  2. Nellis, Stephen, and Paresh Dave. “Apple, Google Ban Use of Location Tracking in Contact Tracing Apps – Reuters.” Accessed May 8, 2020.
  3. Lin, Liza, and Ping, Chong Koh. “Singapore Built a Coronavirus App, but It Hasn’t Worked So Far – WSJ.” Accessed May 8, 2020.
  4. Allen, Danielle. “We Need Tech and Government Help with Contact Tracing. That Doesn’t Have to Mean Big Brother. – The Washington Post.” Accessed May 8, 2020.
  5. Green, Matthew. “How 9/11 Changed America: Four Major Lasting Impacts (with Lesson Plan).” KQED. Accessed May 8, 2020.
  6.  “Surveillance Under the Patriot Act | American Civil Liberties Union.” Accessed May 8, 2020.
  7. Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, 2019, 177.
  8. Mozur, Paul, Raymond Zhong, and Aaron Krolik. “In Coronavirus Fight, China Gives Citizens a Color Code, With Red Flags – The New York Times.” Accessed May 8, 2020.
  9. Prasso, Sheridan. “Coronavirus Surveillance Helps, But the Programs Are Hard to Stop – Bloomberg.” Accessed May 8, 2020.
  10.  Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, 2019, 122.
  11. Allen, Danielle. “We Need Tech and Government Help with Contact Tracing. That Doesn’t Have to Mean Big Brother. – The Washington Post.” Accessed May 8, 2020.
  12. Crocker, Andrew, Kurt Opsahl, and Bennett Cyphers. “The Challenge of Proximity Apps For COVID-19 Contact Tracing | Electronic Frontier Foundation.” Accessed May 8, 2020.
  13. Ng, Alfred. “Apple and Google Say They’ll Shut down COVID-19 Tracking Tools Once Pandemic Ends.” CNET. Accessed May 8, 2020.
  14. “TraceTogether.” Accessed May 8, 2020.
  15. Lin, Liza, and Ping, Chong Koh. “Singapore Built a Coronavirus App, but It Hasn’t Worked So Far – WSJ.” Accessed May 8, 2020.
  16. “Public Trust in Government: 1958-2019 | Pew Research Center.” Accessed May 8, 2020.
  17. Washington Post. “Washington Post-University of Maryland National Poll, April 21-26, 2020.” Accessed May 8, 2020.
  18. Timberg, Craig, Drew Harwell, and Alana Safarpour. “Washington Post-University of Maryland Poll Finds a Problem for Apple-Google Coronavirus App – The Washington Post.” Accessed May 8, 2020.
  19. “Outpacing the Virus: Digital Response to Containing the Spread of COVID-19 While Mitigating Privacy Risks.” COVID-19 Rapid Response Impact Initiative | White Paper 5, n.d.

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