Apple and Google's new smartphone alert system for tracking the coronavirus could be 'alarming' for privacy, US senator warns

Apple and Google's new smartphone alert system for tracking the coronavirus could be 'alarming' for privacy, US senator warns
Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, left, and Apple CEO Tim Cook. Getty/Business Insider Composite
  • US Senator Josh Hawley is pressing Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Apple CEO Tim Cook to raise privacy questions about the companies' joint contact tracing technology.
  • Hawley is calling on the CEOs to take personal responsibility when it comes to protecting consumer privacy throughout the project.
  • Apple and Google's contact tracing system would make it possible to receive a smartphone alert if you may have been exposed to someone infected with COVID-19.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

A US senator is pressing Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai about their companies' joint efforts to track the coronavirus pandemic through smartphones.

The project could have potentially "alarming" implications for consumer privacy, the senator, Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, wrote in a letter sent to both CEOs on Tuesday,

Apple and Google announced that the two companies were working on a contact tracing system that would be powered by Bluetooth low-energy signals coming from smartphones. Android devices and iPhones would be able to communicate with one another by simultaneously broadcasting and scanning for signals from devices within proximity.

Through this system, the companies hope to alert people who may have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 through their smartphones. The first phase of the project will entail enabling the public to use this technology though apps built by public health authorities, while the second stage will see Apple and Google building the system into their respective operating systems directly.

Hawley argued in the letter that anonymized data gathered as part of the project could be cross-referenced with other types of data, like GPS locations, potentially making it possible to reveal individual identities.


The senator also raised questions about what will happen with the technology once the pandemic subsides, and called on Cook and Pichai to make themselves personally liable for any lapse in privacy protections.

"Do not hide behind a corporate shield like so many privacy offenders have before," Hawley wrote. "Stake your personal finances on the security of this project."

When approached for comment, Apple and Google pointed to privacy protections that will be built into the system, which both companies previously announced.

Participants must opt in to the project, and the Bluetooth identifiers being exchanged via smartphone will not contain any identifiable information. These identifiers also change every 15 minutes, which the tech giants say will prevent one device from being tracked for an extended period of time. The system will not collect location data, and the companies say users will be in control of any data they choose to share.

The identities of people who test positive will not be revealed to anyone, the companies say, including Apple and Google.


Apple and Google are only offering the technology to public health authorities, they said, and can disable the tech when it's no longer needed.

Hawley isn't the only official to raise concerns about Apple and Google's project. Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, also called on Apple and Google to provide more assurance about how they will protect user privacy throughout the project, according to Reuters.

"I urgently want to know how Apple and Google will assure that consumers' privacy interests are strongly balanced with the legitimate needs of public health officials during the coronavirus pandemic," Blumenthal said.

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