COVID-19 Tracking Through Phones - Fact vs. Fiction

Jon LensingJune 21, 20203 minute read

As Google and Apple team up to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, social media streams have lit up with claims regarding smartphone applications tracking your location for nefarious purposes.

​ If you’ve been on social media channels in the past few weeks, you have likely seen users posting images of the latest “update” to their cell phone software that has allegedly added user-tracking software without their consent. While the posts are true to a point – the most recent iOS upgrade added a COVID-19 Exposure Logging option to the iPhone setting screen – but the fearmongering may not be laying the whole picture. While big data does have a habit of releasing less-than-private updates and data-privacy suits plague the industry, the purpose of these new updates may be less nefarious than you think. As a physician, having the ability to understand how tech companies are leading efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus is vital for helping encourage patients and calm their fears. ​ ​

Tracking & Tracing

In a nearly unprecedented act of partnership, Google and Apple have teamed up to develop technology that utilizes the Bluetooth features of mobile phones to create a global tracking system for COVID-19 patients. Rather than building a system that secretly tracks user’s every movement, the technology simply creates the framework that allows for COVID-19 tracking applications to use the phone’s hardware to operate functionally. ​ The hope of the tracking software rests in a “testing and tracing” system that has shown promise in countries such as South Korea and other Asian regions familiar with SARS outbreaks. By having the ability to quickly track new positive COVID-19 patients and trace their previous contacts, those who are possibly infected can be notified and quarantined before they infect others unexpectedly. ​ While tracking and tracing usually depends on an army of human tracers, the Bluetooth- enabled API built into most smartphones (think Google Maps) can allow for individuals who have recently been diagnosed with COVID-19 anonymously and automatically notify those with whom they may have come into contact. With temporary data tracking of location and connecting that data to other users, this technology can allow for a nearly limitless record of contact while maintaining privacy. The aim of this automatic tracing is to allow for the track and trace method to take place on a global level with the one item that nearly everyone owns – a Bluetooth-enabled iPhone. ​

Tracking vs. Privacy

As a physician, you are well aware of the various privacy issues related to healthcare and patient information. The contention of most COVID-19-related applications built for tracking is the fear that privacy is being sacrificed on the altar of a need to track every COVID-19 positive patient. ​ Despite fears and misinformation spread about this technology, Google and Apple have made clear that their intention is to allow for application developers to create tracing applications using their hardware – rather than creating applications themselves and forcing them directly into user’s devices. This ensures that only those users who agree to be tracked (albeit anonymously) download the applications and use them. ​ Having the ability to track and trace coronavirus-infected individuals is vital for stopping the spread of the virus, but protecting the freedoms and privacy of individuals must also be a high priority. In understanding how these emerging technologies work, and helping alleviate patient fears and concerns, physicians must have the ability to explain new tracking systems. In helping the public understand these methods – as well as their freedom to abstain from taking part – they can help continue to stem the tide of the coronavirus pandemic and keep one another safe. ​ At OpenLoop, our goal is to continue to provide physicians resources that allow healthcare professionals to make informed decisions and give research-based knowledge to their patients and team members. Find more resources regarding COVID-19 and a variety of other topics online at the OpenLoop.

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