This week: contact tracing with Apple and Google, and the big picture of surveillance during the pandemic. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
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Intro This is The Future, This Week on Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter, and I'm Kai Riemer. Every week we get together and look at the news of the week. We discuss technology, the future of business, the weird and the wonderful and things that change the world. Okay, let's start. Let's start!
Kai Today on The Future, This Week: contact tracing with Apple and Google, and the big picture of surveillance during the pandemic.
Sandra I'm Sandra Peter, I'm the Director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai I'm Kai Riemer, professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group. So what are we talking about?
Sandra There's been lots of articles about contact tracing, tracking, surveillance, modelling.
Kai Many countries have brought in place solutions to track COVID-19 cases, to figure out where there is hot-spots, to use data to make sure that people are notified who were in contact with prospective COVID-19 cases.
Sandra Not just different countries, we've seen solutions coming out of China, Singapore, Taiwan, the UK, Australia is announcing them, but also companies. And there was a very surprising announcement where two long-time enemies, Apple and Google, have joined forces to develop a joint solution.
Kai I think that should be the topic for this week. There's so much in this topic, not just you know the Apple/Google case, which is really interesting, but also the bigger picture. I don't think there's anything else we have time for this week.
Sandra So let's start with Apple and Google, and then try to bring a little bit of order into what is now a huge topic.
Kai So, Sandra, what happened in the future this week?
Sandra Our first topic is from Politico, and it's the fact that Apple and Google have teamed up in a huge effort to trace coronavirus cases around the world.
Kai So this is a big deal because Apple and Google are obviously two of the big tech competitors who compete in areas like smart speakers and intelligent assistants, so Siri and Google Home, but most prominently, obviously, they compete in the mobile phone market, not only with handsets directly with each other, Google's Pixel and Apple's iPhone, but most notably with their operating systems, IOS and Android.
Sandra And let's remember, these are not companies that have ever really even liked each other. Famously, Steve Jobs once said that he would destroy Android, whereas Google has repeatedly charged Apple with ripping off its products and services and designs, and so on and so forth.
Kai And obviously, they do have business relationships with each other. Apple integrates Google Maps into its operating system. Google develops apps for the Apple ecosystem, and Google also purchases a lot of Apple devices and technology for its employees. But they have famously been at odds in the media, especially regarding their different approaches to privacy.
Sandra This has been one of the central questions raised by many of the articles that we've seen come out, and many of the news reports, about the reach that these companies already have in our individual lives and into our society. But their ability to now join forces has huge privacy implications and concerns. But also, some have pointed out that theoretically they could reach 99 percent of the smartphones globally.
Kai Because there's not much left, right. There's a few Windows phones, there's a few Blackberries and as a few fringe dwelling operating systems. But it's by and large, all Apple and Google. And significantly, the announcement was made by Apple. Apple, of course, the company that is staking their fortunes on privacy. Privacy is a big selling point for Apple, whereas Google has often been in the news as one of the big techs, with Facebook, accused of exploiting people's privacy quite deeply. There's been issues around YouTube, there's been issues around tracking people. And so notably, Apple is the one who's taken the lead to put this proposal forward.
Sandra So let's first discuss what we need to know and understand about this particular tech. And then let's talk a little bit more broadly about all the efforts that are done to track and trace people during this pandemic.
Kai So what they have essentially announced is an API, an Application Programming Interface. That's the underlying technology that allows different countries and health services to develop an app that can then work with this technology that was announced. This is coming in mid-May, and in mid-June they will then build this technology into their operating system so it works without a dedicated app that someone would have to develop.
Sandra And the idea is that people in various countries across the world would be able to access this app via their own local health authority or government agency app like the Coronavirus app that we have now, provided by the Australian government.
Kai So the technology itself is based on what's called low energy Bluetooth, which is not a new technology at all. It's been in these operating systems for over a decade, but it can be exploited to know whether two phones have been in the vicinity of each other. So the way this works is that every user who opts into this service will have a so-called 'tracing key', a randomised unique identifier generated on their phone, and a daily derivative of this key that the phone will then broadcast and anyone else with the same technology turned on will collect the keys of all the phones in the vicinity and store them securely on their phone. So if I now go about my daily life and move around and have this technology turned on, I will collect all the keys of the people that I come in contact with. And the companies say that they can use the technology such that they know how close phones have been to each other. So the six feet or two metre range is obviously important for spreading the infection. So in theory, every phone will then collect all the keys of all the phones that it has been in contact with.
Sandra If people have tested positive to the coronavirus, it's envisioned that somehow this data, with consent, would be uploaded to a public health authority server that will then periodically send out all the positive keys to every device. And when there is a match for someone who has been in close contact with that particular person who has been identified as having tested positive, they'll be alerted by the app and be told that they should get tested themselves.
Kai So in terms of security, this solution is better than other solutions we have previously seen. First of all, there is no location data being stored. It doesn't matter where a phone has been. It only matters what other phones the phone has been in proximity with and the data is encrypted and kept on user's device. So the data that is being collected is not automatically stored on a centralised server. Only in case of an infection will that data be utilised.
Sandra There are also other positive aspects to this, such as the fact that many governments have struggled with creating their own apps, have struggled with the lack of common standards. If we think about the European Union as a block of countries, they all have different uncoordinated approaches to how to deliver a technical solution. And it's also been pointed out that such an effort might pre-empt certain governments from mandating a more invasive data collection protocol.
Kai So, will it work, though?
Sandra Well, it could work, but there are quite a few things that we need to point out. Even though it said that this could reach 99 percent of smartphones globally, that's not an easy number to get to. Given that all Android phones have different operating systems, are issued by different companies, updated at different points in time. Not everybody has a smartphone as well. So, there are many parts of the world where smartphones are not as ubiquitous as they are in the developed world.
Kai So a solution like this obviously depends on many, if not most, people having this technology on their phones, and Apple years in a much better position to push this technology out to users devices. Historically, Apple has very high adoption rate of new updates. Sometimes people download the newest operating system within a month, so they have penetration of 50 percent in a month, whereas Android sometimes only gets 10 percent after about nine months. On top of this, the fragmentation of the Android ecosystem also means that they are confronted with a range of different hardware. So it will be very hard to actually make sure that the Bluetooth, the chips and the technology actually works in the same way and with the same accuracy on all the different kinds of handsets that are available in the market.
Sandra And of course, the technology could also prove especially difficult when we talk about densely populated urban environments such as high rises, apartment buildings, where people live in very close proximity, where phones could be picked up through the walls. Even at a stoplight in traffic with people sitting in different cars or on the bus, the technology might give false positive results. That is not to speak of things like fraud, where a user could falsely claim to have the virus, which would then in turn waste a lot of resources in testing people that they would have been in contact with.
Kai Yeah, the false positives, I think, is a huge problem. Not only does the sensitivity, or the technology, have to be such that it doesn't pick up devices that are further away. This Bluetooth technology has a range of 30 feet. We need to only include those that are within six feet. So that's a big problem. And then, of course, you know, as you said, buses, double-decker trains, apartment blocks, all raise the prospect of having a huge number of false positives. Not only would that lead to many, many more people having to self-isolate than would normally be necessary, it also creates anxiety when people are notified that they might potentially be infected with the disease. So that is something that has to be tested thoroughly.
Sandra And let's not forget, this solution is contingent on voluntary adoption. So people have to consent to be part of this, have to download an app, and have to disclose their data. There would be no mandatory use of the data. So you would have to reach a certain percentage of the population adopting it voluntarily, to get the benefits that you would need at the population level.
Kai So if only 10 or 20 percent of the population adopt the technology, then the coverage is not good enough to actually get the benefits of eradicating the virus. It might offer some slight protection for the individual with the technology. But you know, on average, you're always in contact with 80 percent of people who wouldn't have the tech.
Sandra And if we look at previous efforts, so for instance, Singapore developed a contact tracing app back in March, and the Singaporean society is considering quite disciplined compared to places like Australia or the US. And they also have fewer privacy concerns. But we're now almost a month after the app was released and fewer than a quarter of the smartphones in the country have downloaded the app.
Kai And we also want to point out that remarkably the TraceTogether app in Singapore, that technology, is very similar in terms of the way it works to the solution now proposed by Apple and Google.
Sandra And it is indeed also the solution that is being proposed for Australia.
Kai And so while initially this technology will require the download of an app, we can hope that Apple and Google might be able to push out the second version of the technology to devices in a more automatic way, taking away the initial hurdle of having to know about, having to go to the app store and then download an app.
Sandra Taking a step back, however, this Apple and Google story, as well as all the other ones about various efforts to track the pandemic, do raise bigger questions about the way we collect and share personal data, questions about privacy, and questions about how technology can help us track this pandemic.
Kai Which brings us to our second story, which comes from MIT Technology Review, and was written by a friend of the podcast, Genevieve Bell, who is with the Australian National University in Canberra, and runs the 3A Institute, which has at its core the question of algorithms and surveillance and the critical view of how we use this technology. And so Genevieve makes the point that we need mass surveillance to fight COVID-19, some form of tracking, tracing, but that it doesn't have to be creepy, that we should look for ways that do not invade privacy, that leave users with consent. And so obviously, the proposal by Google and Apple is set in this context, but there are some much bigger questions and also bigger technological efforts needed to curb the virus.
Sandra We thought we would use this article as an opportunity to talk about two big things. One is we're seeing all this conversation around tracking and tracing. But what is it for? We've seen contact tracing, tracking, mapping, modelling for many different reasons. So we want to have a look at what the processes. And then we want to look at how that data is collected and aggregated and what can governments and organisations do with that data.
Kai So let's take a look at what we mean by contact tracing. Before we had smartphones and apps and all this data, contact tracing is basically detective work where someone would report that they are infected with the virus and then they would be interrogated. Where have they been? Who have they been in contact with? And people would go out and try and find as many people as possible that this person was in contact with to notify them and then test them or tell them to self-isolate. And Genevieve points out that the idea of contact tracing has very negative connotations because it was used in the context of HIV, often used to vilify gay people, as, you know, carriers of the disease. The tracing aspect has connotations of criminal investigations, and so she says we need to actually lift that image and make this into something positive that has to do not with the individuals who are spreading viruses, but with the production of a public good and a public health narrative that is much more positive.
Sandra The second reason such technologies are being used or deployed is to actually confine people in their homes. Once it is known that they have the virus or have been exposed to make sure that they self-quarantine and to make sure that they don't come in contact with other people.
Kai So one is tracing, finding out who might have contracted the disease,, and the other then is tracking, where someone's location will have to be ascertained and then have to make sure that the person stays in the location where they're supposed to be staying. And you can, of course, use a smartphone app for this or other technology, such as ankle bracelets to make sure that a person is at the exact geolocation, their apartment or their house, that they are supposed to be.
Sandra A much less discussed aspect of what this technology can be used for is what would happen when the disease starts to abate, or when the lockdown restrictions are starting to be eased or even lifted. And this technology could help move people around. And this is something that we've seen with tracking and tracing efforts in China, where we've seen the government rely heavily on the mobile payment app Alipay, which has helped them roll out an Alipay Health Code, which has been adopted nationwide, which would give people a 'risk' score. So Green would be unrestricted travel. A yellow would mean you would need to self-quarantine for seven days. And red would mean you would have to quarantine for two weeks, and you wouldn't be allowed to travel anywhere. And such algorithms have been praised by some as allowing people to return to work sooner, or to travel unencumbered in case they have already had the disease, or in case there is no reason to believe that they do.
Kai So to recap, there's these three applications at the individual level: tracing which allows curbing the spread of the virus by knowing who might have contracted it. Tracking, which is used to enforce self-isolation or confinement of people who are suspected of, or have contracted the disease. And the last one would be the enabling of movement of people, once restrictions are east in a step-by-step way. So this is at the individual level. But data can also be used at the aggregate level where health authorities or governments use data to model and map where there's hotspots, for example, to inform the public of which places they should or shouldn't go, or get a better overview where testing is most needed and where COVID-19 clinics should be set up.
Sandra Which brings us to the fact that underlying all of these efforts to trace the disease or to model the pandemic, underlying all of these efforts are different ways of working with data. One is collecting data at the individual level vs collecting data at the aggregate level, and the other one is collecting data that has a location attached to it, or collecting data that has no geographic location attached to it.
Kai So the most invasive, but also the most accurate one, would be the tracking of people with individualised data and location. We know who they are. We know where they are. We also know who they were in contact with. This can be used to confine people to enable movement, and for tracing.
Sandra So going one step back, you might still have individual level data, but it would be the identified data and you would not have a specific location attached to it. So this is the example we've just discussed with Apple and Google, who would allow you to know whom a person has been in contact with, but not necessarily where they have been in contact with that person.
Kai So that enables tracing, but not tracking. The next level down would be to say, OK, we forego individualised data. We have only aggregate data, but we might have location data. We know where populations are moving. This is really useful for mapping hotspots and knowing where people congregate. This has been used in the US to show how spring break in Florida led to the movement of people and the spread of the disease. Facebook has come up with solutions that they offer governments to show where people are moving and where there might be hotspots of the disease.
Sandra So this mapping approach would give you certain locations or hotspots. However, you could move one step even further back and have aggregated data with no location attached to it, and that would be something similar to what City Map has done, for instance, accounting for the level of traffic that we've seen, for instance, in Sydney or in Madrid, where there are able to say, look, we've seen a 90 percent decrease in travel around the city, hence, you could infer the level of economic activity or the level of contact that people would have over a large area and over longer periods of time.
Kai So these metrics can be used by governments to know whether the calls for voluntary social distancing are actually working. Traffic is down, you know, restaurant bookings are down. All of these things could be used going forward as well, when restrictions are being lifted, to see whether this is actually happening at the gradual level that is being wanted, or whether this is happening too fast, and therefore we will have to bring back certain restrictions.
Sandra It's worth also discussing what happens once the restrictions are being lifted or once the pandemic is over. Because one thing that we don't really see discussed in any of these articles is how long will any of these systems be in place? What is the right time to say, okay, we stop using these systems, we stop tracking, we stop tracing or we stop mapping population movements.
Kai And then, of course, goes straight to the worries in many open democracies where there's fears that individual freedoms might be undermined in the long term by bringing in place certain surveillance technologies during the pandemic, that will be very hard to walk back afterwards, once governments have gotten used to the level of information that can be gleaned from tracking large parts of the population.
Sandra And of course, such efforts are complicated by the fact that there might actually be real societal and economic benefits to continuing to have some sort of tracking or tracing in place to allow people to go back to work to have, and this has been discussed, for instance, in the US where Dr Anthony Fauci, the White House top disease expert, said that they were considering the idea of issuing some sort of certificates of immunity to those people whose blood tests would reveal that they have developed the antibodies to the coronavirus.
Kai On the other hand, we also want to point out that once Apple and Google bring in place an infrastructure for doing this kind of tracing, it would put the world into a much better position to handle pandemics in the future. And also because of the interoperability across nations and across borders, would allow a technology that allows for international movements and to bring back travel, which, of course, wouldn't work if every country has its own technology.
Sandra The fact that different countries will end up having different approaches to how they monitor people during and after the pandemic also raises the idea of inequality, not only inequality between various countries, but even within countries. Issues of inequality will have to be discussed because this technology will not play out equally for everybody. On the one hand, we've discussed earlier that not everybody might have a mobile phone and be able to participate.
Kai On the other hand, the idea that consent is voluntary with these apps is also contested, once your movement depends on opting into the app and demonstrating that you're not infected. And of course, certain groups of people, certain professions, essential workers, do not have the ability to opt out when they are going to work depends on sharing their private data and having themselves tracked when an app like this exists.
Sandra So going forward, we will have to continue this conversation, keeping in mind that this is part of larger conversations that we have, both around surveillance capitalism and the big tech companies, but also about how we might, in times of crisis, forgo our personal privacy for the common good.
Kai So we have discussed on the podcast a lot the issues of big tech and surveillance capitalism. We have often called bullshit on their initiatives to protect privacy, but now that we're faced with this global pandemic, many of the solutions that exist on a technological level might show up quite differently when it is about the production of a public good and the protection of the health of the population. So this will have to lead to a more nuanced discussion of the topic such as surveillance and tracking and tracing.
Sandra But that's all we have time for this week.
Kai Thanks for listening.
Sandra Thanks for listening.
Kai See you soon.
Sandra On The Future...
Kai Next week.
Sandra This week?
Kai Yes, but next week.
Sandra On The Future, This Week. Next week.
Sandra Thanks for listening.
Kai Thanks for listening.
Outro This was The Future, This Week, made possible by the Sydney Business Insights team and members of the Digital Disruption Research Group. And every week right here with us, our sound editor Megan Wedge, who makes a sound good and keeps us honest. Our theme music was composed and played live on a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us online on Flipboard, Twitter or sbi.sydney.edu.au. If you have any news that you want us to discuss, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.