The White House misunderstands Google and Apple’s contact tracing API

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The man behind the task force leading the US government’s response to COVID19, Dr. Anthony Fauci sat down for an interview with Vanity Fair. During the interview, he was asked what his thoughts are on Apple and Google’s contact tracing API to help identify people who have been in direct physical contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.

His response showed that he believes the API uses GPS location, instead what it actually does is collect anonymous codes from nearby iPhone and then track those codes in case a user signals they have tested positive. If a user does tell the system they’ve tested positive, Apple and Google trace back those anonymous codes and notifies anyone who’s been in contact. This was Dr. Anthony’s full response:

Question: Google and Apple are saying they’re going to develop technology to trace this via mobile phone. Do you think that’s a good idea? Have you consulted with them on how to develop those products?

Fauci: I haven’t personally consulted with them. But one of the sticky, sticky issues about that is that there is a lot of pushback in this country to get someone or some organization—particular if it’s sponsored by the federal government, I think they’d feel better about it if it’s private—to have by GPS somebody know where you were and when you were there. Even though from a purely public health standpoint, that makes sense. You know, you could look at somebody’s cell phone, and say, “You were next to these 25 people over the last 24 hours.” Boy, I gotta tell you the civil liberties-type pushback on that would be considerable. Even though from a pure public health standpoint, it absolutely makes sense.

Some of the blame on the misunderstanding does lie with Apple and Google, as Vanity Fair says,

The two companies have gone to pains to explain that privacy was top priority in the design of the application programming interface, but mainstream media reports and conversations with non-techy friends have made it obvious that many don’t understand why apps that use this can be trusted.

When the companies first announced the API, they were quick to publish and promote privacy centered handbooks and guidelines, however, all of them lacked basic language that day to day people would understand.

Looking forward, Apple and Google need to show this API in practice, clearly stating step by step how it works, and the mechanics along the way.

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Sami started falling in love with Apple in 2010 with the iPhone 4S. As a registered developer, he deeply admires the world of Apple. Sami is an aspiring journalist, writer, and actor. He also has devoted his life to sharing his passion and knowledge with others around the world.