Why We Should Worry About Big Tech’s COVID Tracking Plans
Google and Apple’s invasive tools cannot replace human contact tracers and will continue to harm civil liberties long after the virus subsides.
By Jeff Hauser, Sarah Miller, and Daniel E. Stevens
Apple and Google are forging ahead with their COVID-19 contact tracing tools, and many are welcoming them as a key factor in efforts to emerge from our national lockdown. But the companies’ past behavior — and their business models — raises the prospect that their new technology could lead to an unprecedented level of surveillance long after the current crisis has passed.
It may not be worth the trade-off.
There are growing concerns that the system devised by the tech giants won’t be particularly helpful for slowing the virus’ advance. It will allow, but not require, a person who has tested positive to alert anyone with whom they’ve been in recent contact. What a person getting such an alert would do next is an open question. Without a human contact tracer involved, the system may end up being of little use.
On the other side of the ledger, the new tools pose serious risks to civil liberties that will likely be felt long after the virus subsides. It is unclear if users will truly be able to opt out of having their data collected. It’s also unclear what data, if any, will be stored on Apple and Google servers and associated with user accounts. We don’t know what will happen to the data once the crisis passes, or whether users’ privacy settings will revert to the way they were. The tech platforms are asking us to simply trust them.
Our organizations have been investigating the problems caused by powerful tech companies, and we see good reason to be skeptical. Apple and Google have already been forced to pay huge fines for failing to follow consumer protection laws, and polls show Americans have little confidence things will be different this time.
Apple makes most of its money by selling expensive gadgets, and it has criticized companies like Google that sell access to personal information. But Apple has proven quite content to steer its users’ data to Google when it’s in its own interest.