Editorial: Coronavirus smartphone tracking done right can save us

©The San Diego Union-Tribune

CATHERINE LAI/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS

A month after Singapore responded to the coronavirus pandemic by encouraging residents to put an app on their smartphones that would notify them if they had been within 5 meters of someone known to have the virus, only one in five had. Given the low and slow adoption rate and the prevalence of privacy and technology-surveillance concerns in the U.S., it might seem like a long shot to expect Americans would embrace a similar tool here. It shouldn’t.

Contact tracing and social distancing has helped flatten the curve of cases in Singapore, at least initially, and in South Korea, where phone location data, credit card records and closed-circuit TV footage are used to share details about COVID-19 cases. Yet an open letter from dozens of tech and other leaders urging Silicon Valley to spearhead the coronavirus fight got a cool reception last month.

With 26 million unemployment claims and more than 50,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. at this point, it’s time to reconsider what’s both possible and palatable. With heath experts saying reopening will rely on testing, tracing and isolation, finding out who has interacted or been near someone with the coronavirus is crucial. With the U.S. on the brink of an economic depression, sacrificing a little privacy — on a voluntary basis — makes a lot of sense.

Thankfully, Google and Apple — whose software is so prevalent on smartphones worldwide — are marking steady progress in crafting contact-tracing apps that can work on both Android and iOS phones and hope to make them available by mid-May. The companies say the apps will use the Bluetooth radio technology on phones to track whether a smartphone owner has come within about 30 feet of someone who is known to have or who later develops the coronavirus. And if one discovers they have coronavirus, they can tap a button on their app to instantly upload to a server their phone pings for the previous two weeks, allowing health authorities and the people whose paths they crossed to know.

This may seem like an invasion of privacy to some of the many Californians who applauded the state’s new online privacy law this year. But none other than the surveillance and cybersecurity counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union has said that a “well-designed” tool is possible. And Google and Apple executives say these apps can pass along vital health data without creating a massive database of information about where people go or who they’re around. That’s because Bluetooth, unlike GPS, doesn’t gather location information — just if one smartphone has been in the vicinity of another one.

Maybe you’re skeptical. Apple has a decent record on privacy issues, but Google has had to acknowledge over the years that its phone operating system and other products gather more information on their users than previously disclosed. Last June, a technology columnist in The Washington Post likened Google’s Chrome internet browser to “surveillance software” vacuuming up private data.

But the ACLU believes a tracing app could be effective and acceptable if it upholds six principles: its use is voluntary; the data it gathers is used only for public health; it generates a bare minimum of necessary information; its data is deleted when it is no longer needed; agencies disclose how they got app data and what they use it for; and tracking “does not outlive the effort against COVID-19.”

As with social distancing, Americans will ultimately decide how well the weapon works against this job-wrecking, life-wrenching pandemic. But it could — and should — be one of the most potent.

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©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune