In May, Google and Apple announced their partnership in a bid to develop a tool which is set help individuals around the world to track their exposure to COVID-19. The initiative was welcomed in some US states, but there were also sceptics who remained concerned about issues of personal data collection potentially enabled by the tracing apps.
Google announced on Friday that 20 states and territories, representing around 45% of the American population, have been “exploring” COVID-19 contact tracing apps built around the Exposure Notifications System (ENS) tool developed by Google in partnership with Apple. The first American apps are now expected to be released “over the coming weeks”, the company added in a statement coming from Google’s VP of Engineering Dave Burke.
ENS is based on a technique that enables app users to send them notifications in case they have been exposed to coronavirus by tracking their encounters with other people through Bluetooth signals on their smartphones. Google notes that tracing apps will be developed and used only by a country’s public health authorities, and not by the tech giants themselves, noting that the user’s identity and location details are not collected or shared with others.
The Apple-Google tracing tool still found many critics, after the two rival tech giants first announced their unprecedented collaboration back in May, with cyber security specialists citing concerns over “unnecessary” collection of personal data, despite the companies relying on a decentralised database approach in the development of apps.
Google has been involved in several scandals over breach of privacy in the past, including a major backlash it experienced in 2018 after a software leakage was discovered within the company’s social media network tools, leading to the compromising of the personal data of millions of users. The company has also been repeatedly accused of collecting personal data though search engines and oversharing it with third-party websites through Google Analytics tools.
In the United States, the initiative has initially been welcomed by state officials in North Dakota, South Carolina and Alabama, who have announced that they would be the ones to launch apps based on the ENS tool. However, a backlash over privacy issues has already prompted South Carolina lawmakers to put the launch of the in-state app on hold.