The Importance of Apple and Google’s Contact Tracing Collaboration

The deeper we go with COVID-19, the more I’m thinking about what the future looks like post-virus. About a month ago, I saw articles that sought to look at the world post the 1918 flu pandemic. Authors seemed to insist that because you could not find much-published material, in newspapers and other media, about the 1918 flu that people must have moved on pretty quickly. While there may be some truth to that, I think we live in a very different world than that of 1918, and I do not believe this will leave human consciousness anytime soon.

To carry things further, the lasting remnants of this virus will have an impact on every cold and flu season until there is a treatment or a vaccine. Because COVID-19 seems to look like so many other common illnesses, there is a good chance anyone with cold or flu symptoms next year will worry, in the back of their mind, they have COVID-19. But as a general point, the more I’ve thought about how technology can help identify and limit the spread of any contagious disease in the future, the more I’m convinced of how important the collaboration between Google and Apple is. Still, I’d like both companies to go even farther than they are at the moment.

The Big Deal
While Google and Apple compete, they are actually much better collaborators when they need to be. But, both companies have a duopoly in mobile operating systems, and when it comes to the point I’m making, the mobile platform is the most important one. This means for any meaningful work to happen here, Apple and Google had to work together. I’d actually argue that for the sake of public interest and safety, this collaboration is necessary.

Given how other governments around the world are in a position to track, monitor, and spy on their citizens, the technology that travels with us everywhere in our pocket, and someday on our bodies, gives any entity a malicious opportunity. I wrote a few weeks ago, my concern over governments using crises to erode its citizen’s privacy. This is still a worry, but the collaboration efforts of Google and Apple give me some hope, especially if they are willing to be more strict in their app store approval and rules about how people can be tracked.

But I do think, and I believe this epidemic proves that we need something that can help give us peace of mind for the future that we are protected and aware of the health risks around us as they arise. I certainly understand how weird it may be for a person to get an alert that makes it obvious their smartphone knew where they were, but I also think there is peace of mind when it is a matter of safety. Doing so in a privacy-centric way is the key, and it’s one the public needs to accept.

What Apple and Google are doing is essentially providing the technology layer. They have built the underlying technology and protocol that allows app developers to build the kind of apps that can alert us if we have been exposed, in this case, to COVID-19. Still, my mind is thinking ahead about any future pandemic or easily transmitted disease. In the scenario, Apple and Google are providing an entity like WHO, CDC, perhaps the State, or even the country would make the app and promote it to the public. There are pros and cons to this approach.

The main pro is that as long as whoever is making the app uses the technology from Apple and Google, it doesn’t matter who makes the app they will all still work together. So, for example, the USA makes an app, and I download it. Spain makes an app, and its citizens download it. I go to Spain, and I’m around someone who either has symptoms or a confirmed case of a disease, I will still get notified. This matters because there is a chance many organizations will build apps using this technology, and how a consumer chooses one will all be a matter of trust.

However, this matter of trust is also where the big negative comes in. First off, letting nation-states, counties, or other health organizations, or whoever really, develop these apps do not guarantee the public will download it, or trust it, even if Apple and Google’s technology is behind it. What Apple and Google are providing is a public service technology, but it also requires nearly 100% buy in to make it effective. This is why I worry about the plethora of apps that may be developed using this technology and that being a limiter to adoption.

Where I think Apple and Google should go further is they should provide the app themselves as a general health and wellness app. I may even take it one step further and argue this app should be a default app on the device. While I still think you would have to opt-in to use it, I think if, as a part of a broader health and wellness app/service, more of the public would adopt and use the technology in this scenario.

What we have learned from this situation is how unprepared the United States and many other countries were for this breakout. This simply can’t happen again, and technology has to play a much larger role in averting all future health disasters. What Apple and Google have built is central to that reality. As a matter of public health and safety, I think it needs to be as widely adopted as possible, and I doubt that will happen if Apple and Google do not directly provide this service to their customers.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

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