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Apple, Google In Conflict With States Over Contact-Tracing Tech


Many Americans are being asked to enlist their smartphones against the pandemic. Public health agencies hope the information on phones can help with contact tracing. But how much information should we share? North Dakota was an early adopter, and NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond is following the debate there.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: More than 30,000 people in North Dakota have downloaded a new app called Care19. If you let it, the app tracks your location using your phone's GPS signal. Vern Dosch is leading North Dakota's contact tracing efforts. He says the app can identify coronavirus hotspots. That's important as the state reopens for business.

VERN DOSCH: I mean, we want to know if, all of a sudden, contact tracing identifies that we've had a lot of positives at a particular grocery store or, you know, a bar or something like that.

BOND: But Dosch wants the app to do even more, like keep track of who a user has come close to, not just where they've been.

DOSCH: We feel that in order to do our very best to protect the citizens and to do a very good job, a very thorough job of contact tracing, we need to have every tool that we can.

BOND: So Dosch was excited to hear that tech giants Apple and Google are working on a new contact tracing system. A note - Apple and Google are both NPR sponsors. Their system uses Bluetooth to measure proximity between people, and it will work across 3 billion iPhones and Androids around the world. But there's a catch - letting GPS report your every movement to the government, that's really creepy to a lot of people. Apple and Google won't let any government do that if it wants to use their technology.

Daniel Weitzner is a research scientist at MIT. He's also working on Bluetooth contact tracing. He's not working directly with Apple and Google, but he understands why they're taking this stand.

DANIEL WEITZNER: Given the uncertainty about what is going to be effective here, we felt that the right thing to do was to start with the least intrusive approach that had a chance of being effective.

BOND: Lots of governments are closely watching this debate. South Dakota is already using North Dakota's app. Utah has built an app that tracks location and the identities of users. European countries are split. Germany and Italy say they'll use the Apple-Google system, while Norway and the U.K. are building their own apps. In North Dakota, Dosch says he doesn't know what to do. One option - follow the tech giants' rules and make a second app.

DOSCH: I mean, I don't know that too many citizens are going to be interested in doing both apps.

BOND: Which leaves him in a tough spot.

DOSCH: Do we just, you know, bow to the demands of Apple and Google? And it's all about time to market. And time to market when you're fighting corona is incredibly important.

BOND: Whatever North Dakota decides, the stakes are high. The scale of this pandemic is much greater than anything public health officials have faced in a century. That's why states are hiring tens of thousands of people to do contact tracing. Traditionally, it's a very intrusive process. Health officials spend hours on the phone with people going over where they've been and who they've seen. Technology could supercharge this. But experts say it's just not clear yet whether any of these apps will actually be useful to contact tracers or create more work with little reward.

JENNIFER NUZZO: In fact, that might actually now give you a much larger haystack to sort through in order to find your needle.

BOND: Jennifer Nuzzo is an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins. She says contact tracing has always fundamentally been about human interaction, where public health workers are asking people to open up about their personal lives.

NUZZO: It really relies on trust, and it relies on the person being interviewed being willing to divulge that information to a public health official.

BOND: And no matter how much data it collects, no app can play that role.

Shannon Bond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.