Last week, Apple and Google surprised us with an announcement that the companies are spinning up a system to enable widespread contact tracing in an effort to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. The effort is barely two and a half weeks old, the companies said, and so there are many open questions about how it will work. On Monday afternoon, the companies invited us to call in and ask some questions, and I joined the group and did.
The basic idea is that as jurisdictions flatten the curve of infection and begin to consider re-opening parts of society, they need to implement a comprehensive “test and trace” scheme. You want to test people widely and thoroughly for the disease, as this article by Umair Irfan from Monday explains. And then, as you discover new cases, you want to see who those people may have come in contact with during the time that they were infectious.
Historically, this has been a manual process. Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, some countries have turned to technological means in an effort to enable public health authorities to find more people who may have been exposed and do so more efficiently. So far, it’s not clear that tech-enabled contact tracing has been all that effective. The system relies on voluntary participation, which has generally been weak. And the Bluetooth technology on which the system depends carries with it a high potential for false positives: it’s just not powerful enough to distinguish between cases where people were in very close proximity from ones in which they were 15 or more feet away.
My primary interest in this story — beyond the highly unusual nature of the collaboration between Apple and Google — is how effective it could be. But there are lots of other questions about how it will work that strike me as just as interesting. Let’s take a look at what people are saying, and what we learned today.
The biggest concern most people have expressed about the collaboration is that it will lead to damaging privacy violations. Democratic senators have led the charge here, sending an open letter to the companies expressing their fears. I’m less worried. For one thing, Apple and Google’s system is cleverly designed to maximize individual privacy; it avoids capturing location data and instead records only the proximity of your smartphone to someone else’s. And for another, I value my own privacy less during a public health emergency. I trust Apple and Google to prevent my personal health information from being identified as mine and shared with others, but given the design of the system, I fail to see how a breach would be catastrophic even if it did somehow materialize.
Still, if you’re the sort of person who likes to think through worst-case scenarios, my colleague Russell Brandom walks through some ideas about how data collected as part of this scheme could theoretically be de-identified. The schemes are generally so elaborate that it’s hard for me to imagine even a nation-state undertaking them, though it’s something to keep an eye on.
The second set of concerns has to do with how the system will work in practice. Apple and Google answered a lot of questions about that subject today; here are what I took to be the most consequential.
First, the companies said that by phase two of their effort, when contact tracing is enabled at the level of the operating system, they will notify people who have opted in to their potential exposure to COVID-19 even if they have not downloaded the relevant app from their public health authority. My understanding is that the operating system itself will alert people that they may have been exposed and direct them to download the relevant public health app. This is significant because it can be hard to get people to install software; Singapore saw only 12 percent adoption of its national contact-tracing app. Putting notifications at the system level represents a major step forward for this effort, even if still requires people to opt in.
Second, Google said it would distribute the operating system update through Google Play services, a part of Android controlled by the company that allows it to reach the majority of active devices. (Google says it will be available to everyone running Android 6.0, also known as Marshmallow, and higher on devices that have the Google Play store.) This is highly preferable than relying on carriers, which have historically been slow to distribute updates. It remains to be seen exactly which devices will be eligible for the update, on Android as well as on iOS. But it seems likely that the companies will be able to reach most active devices in the world — a significant feat. (Related: someone asked the companies what percentage of the population we need to use the system to get it to work. No one knows.)
Third, the companies said they would prevent abuse of the system by routing alerts through public health agencies. (They are also helping those agencies, such as Britain’s National Health Service, build apps to do just that.) While the details are still being worked out, and may vary from agency to agency, Apple and Google said they recognized the importance of not allowing people to trigger alerts based on unverified claims of a COVID-19 infection. Instead, they said, people who are diagnosed will be given a one-time code by the public health agency, which the newly diagnosed will have to enter to trigger the alert.
Fourth, the companies promised to use the system only for contact tracing, and to dismantle the network when it becomes appropriate. Some readers have asked me whether the system might be put to other uses, such as targeted advertising, or whether non-governmental organizations might be given access to it. Today Apple and Google explicitly said no.
Fifth, I’ve heard conflicting claims about the ability of Bluetooth-based tracking to measure distances. Last week I told you that Bluetooth could not distinguish between phones that were within six feet of one another, in contradiction of advice from public health agencies, and those that might be 20 or even 30 feet away. One reader pointed me to a part of the Bluetooth standard known as received signal strength indication, or RSSI, that is meant to offer fine-grained location detail.
Apple told me that the effectiveness of RSSI is blunted by various confounding factors: the orientation of the devices relative to one another, whether a phone is in a backpack or otherwise shielded from the signal, and so on. Taken together, those factors undermine the confidence of the system in how close two phones might be to one another. But it continues to be a subject of exploration.
So, to wrap up: do we feel more or less optimistic today about tech-enabled contact tracing than we did before? This post from security researcher Ross Anderson from over the weekend lays out a lot of the concerns I first shared here last week, plus some extra ones. “ I suspect the tracing apps are really just do-something-itis,” Anderson writes. “Most countries now seem past the point where contact tracing is a high priority; even Singapore has had to go into lockdown.”
On the flip side, argues Ben Thompson, there could be value in laying the technological groundwork now for expanded efforts later. He writes:
“They are creating optionality. When and if society decides that this sort of surveillance is acceptable (and, critically, builds up the other components — like testing — of an effective response) the technology will be ready; it is only a flip of a switch for Apple and Google to centralize this data (or, perhaps as a middle ground, enable mobile device management software used by enterprises, centralize this capability). This is no small thing considering that software is not built in a day.”
I still think that digital contact tracing is unlikely to be one of the two or three most important aspects of a country’s coronavirus response plan. Experts have told me that social distancing, wide-scale testing, and isolating sick individuals are significantly more important. And when it comes to contact tracing, we know that human beings often do a better job than smartphones — and some have argued that we need to hire hundreds of thousands of them to do the job.
At the same time, it’s possible to see how digital contact tracing could at least complement other, related efforts, including manual contact tracing. Compared to what, say Hong Kong is doing to test and trace, distributing digital tracking bracelets to everyone getting off the plane at the airport, what Apple and Google have proposed can only be described as a half measure. But in the United States at least, it may be the case that a series of half measures are all we will have to rely on.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
⬇️ Trending down: Quarantined Amazon workers say they have not yet been paid, despite the company’s new policy about quarantine sick leave. The company says the workers will eventually get paid.
⭐ Amazon is hiring 75,000 additional workers after it filled more than 100,000 positions in the last month. The hiring spree is meant to help the company meet a surge in demand due to the coronavirus pandemic, reports Annie Palmer at CNBC:
As it continues to hire more workers, Amazon has also raised employees’ hourly pay and doubled overtime pay for warehouse workers. Through the end of April, warehouse and delivery workers can earn an additional $2 per hour in the U.S., 2 pounds per hour in the U.K., and approximately 2 euros per hour in many EU countries. Amazon currently pays $15 per hour or more in some areas of the U.S. for warehouse and delivery jobs.
Amazon has announced several benefits changes on top of the pay increases. The company has allowed workers to take unlimited unpaid time off and provides two weeks of paid leave for workers who tested positive for the virus or are in quarantine.
Amazon is going to start waitlisting new grocery delivery customers and curtail shopping hours at some Whole Foods stores. The move is meant to prioritize orders from existing customers buying food online during the coronavirus outbreak. (Meanwhile, people have resorted to using scripts downloaded from Github to scrounge for available delivery slots.) (Krystal Hu / Reuters)
After the Staten Island walkout, Amazon finally started checking workers’ temperatures at the warehouse entrance, enforcing social distancing rules, and piloting fog disinfectant. But some people say the roll out of the new safety measures has been uneven. Often, changes are made only after workers exert pressure. (Josh Dzieza / The Verge)
Here’s what nine Amazon workers have to say about working during the pandemic. “I feel like this job is essential because people need deliveries, but it’s also essential for me because I need the money to feed my family,” one said. (Louise Matsakis / Wired)
Amazon was already powerful. But with 250,000 US stores closed due to the pandemic, the company is poised to become even more dominant whenever the economy returns to normal. (Jason Del Rey / Recode)
Coronavirus is driving new surveillance systems in at least 28 countries around the world. OneZero is tracking the expansion of these programs, some of which undermine personal privacy. (And some of which are fairly ho-hum projects that aggregate anonymized data.) (Dave Gershgorn / OneZero)
The Supreme Court will start conducting oral arguments over teleconference, a major change spurred by the novel coronavirus pandemic. It will also stream a live audio feed — another first for the court. (Adi Robertson / The Verge)
The US economy isn’t going back to normal anytime soon, according to public policy think tanks and research centers. The groups have been putting together plans on how to reopen the US economy, and all say that without a vaccine, ending social distancing will be incredibly difficult. (Ezra Klein / Vox)
President Donald Trump has been promoting the antimalarial drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as treatments for the novel coronavirus. So far, there’s not enough evidence to say if they actually work. (And a study into their effectiveness was halted on Monday over the risk of fatal heart complications.) Trump’s comments, which have been covered by the mainstream press, show misinformation isn’t just a problem for social media. (Adi Robertson / The Verge)
Russian President Vladimir Putin has played a principal role in spreading false information about the origins of the novel coronavirus. The move is part of his wider effort to discredit the West and destroy his enemies from within. (William J. Broad / The New York Times)
In China, state media and influential diplomats are also pushing misinformation about the origins of COVID-19. In doing so, they’re legitimizing rumors from the recesses of the internet — and ensuring mass awareness of those ideas. (Renée DiResta / The Atlantic)
The Senate sergeant at arms warned offices that Zoom poses a high risk to privacy and could leave their data and systems exposed. The law enforcement chief urged lawmakers and their staff to use Skype instead. (Cristiano M.Lima / Politico)
Google is making changes to search results to make it easier for people to find virtual health care options. Virtual health care providers have seen a surge in demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jay Peters / The Verge)
Google launched a website dedicated to coronavirus updates in India. The company also tweaked its search engine and YouTube to prominently display trustworthy information about the pandemic. (Manish Singh / TechCrunch)
Google created an application portal to help the state of New York deal with a historic surge in unemployment filings. The company said it could potentially bring a similar service to other states as well. This is cool! (Jennifer Elias / CNBC)
The coronavirus pandemic has allowed Google to pull far ahead of its competitors in getting its tech into classrooms. Google Classroom, a free service teachers use to send out assignments and communicate with students, has doubled active users to more than 100 million since the beginning of March. (Gerrit De Vynck and Mark Bergen / Bloomberg)
WhatsApp rolled out its change to message forwarding to stop misinformation from spreading. Now, viral messages can only be forwarded to one person at a time. (Rita El Khoury / Android Police)
YouTube traffic is skyrocketing, but creators are still struggling. That’s because advertising rates have dropped significantly during the coronavirus pandemic. (Chris Stokel-Walker / OneZero)
Coronavirus has ravaged the American job market, but big tech companies, including Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook, are still hiring. Facebook is planning to fill more than 10,000 product and engineering roles to help keep up with surging traffic. (Chip Cutter and Patrick Thomas / The Wall Street Journal)
More people are watching streamed sexual performances online due to the coronavirus quarantine. But models still aren’t earning more They say new viewers aren’t tipping as well, and there’s a lot of competition. (Gabrielle Drolet / The New York Times)
People are getting dumped over Zoom. And yes, we’re apparently calling the trend “Zumping.” (The Guardian)
Total cases in the US: At least 579,001
Total deaths in the US: More than 23,000
Reported cases in California: 24,032
Reported cases in New York: 195,031
Reported cases in New Jersey: 64,584
Reported cases in Massachusetts: 26,420
A federal appeals court revived nationwide litigation accusing Facebook of violating users’ privacy rights by tracking their internet activity even after they logged out of the social media platform. Users can now pursue several claims under federal and California privacy and wiretapping laws. (Jonathan Stempel / Reuters)
Facebook filed a lawsuit against Basant Gajjar for allegedly providing cloaking software and services designed to circumvent automated ad review systems in order to run deceptive ads on Facebook and Instagram. (Facebook)
Instagram updated the IGTV app to promote creators making longform videos. The homepage now features a creator up top, tailored to each user based on who they follow. The app is also getting a Discover tab. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)
Instagram rolled out access to web DMs globally. Now, everyone can see and send messages on the web. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)
Things to do
Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.
Watch Saturday Night Live’s remote episode, performed over Zoom. The video platform ended up playing a starring role in the show, with constant jokes that ended with Zoom punchlines, and an impressive “Weekend Update” segment all done using the productivity software. (Julia Alexander / The Verge)
Apple is making a selection of Apple TV Plus original shows free to help with the ongoing quarantine. The free collection is available now via this link in the US. Sadly The Morning Show, which is the only Apple original I’ve actually watched, isn’t part of the collection. (Thomas Ricker / The Verge)
“Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, Radiohead and Metallica are all releasing unseen, rare or archived material amid the coronavirus lockdown,” reports Mark Beech at Forbes. I watched a newly released 2008 Radiohead concert over the weekend and it was great!