Recently, Google and Apple announced a working relationship where they will collaborate to enable contact tracing at the device level. We all know the numbers by now: one in three people who are sick enough to be hospitalized for COVID-19 are Black. In some cities and states, more than 50 percent of those who test positive are Black, and as many as 72 percent of virus related fatalities are Black people. It’s no secret that the Black community is riddled with underlying health issues many of which make us high risk for contracting and succumbing to the coronavirus. But another significant, coronavirus related, impact to our community is being overlooked. It’s our privacy and our freedom.
Google and Apple are teaming up to do contact tracing where they use location data from your phone paired with your COVID-19 status (stored on your phone) to triangulate who may have possibly been exposed to and/or infected. This is happening already in China and South Korea. Google and Apple have the power to track 3 BILLION people on the planet. Their plan is to roll out this contract tracing in two phases: the first through an app and the second includes modifying each tech giant's operating systems to enable the data stored on the phone to be accessed. In both cases, the data will be transferred and accessed wirelessly.
Many people have been asking me how the tech giants get a person's COVID-19 status? Some are even writing it off and saying they will refuse to enter their status in their phone. What most are not realizing is at the same time officials are discussing using technology around immunity certificates or other health status certifications which are already being used in Asia. Citizens show their status on their phone to get access into everyday life. Their status is often determined by who they have had access to, by way of location data on their phone, and/or if they have already been infected or not.
In the United States, the contact tracing conversation is evolving quickly. Plans are to use Bluetooth for tracking and anonymity to give location proximity versus exact location coordinates. However, in this big experiment, should this not work, defaulting to device location data to slow future waves of this virus shouldn’t be an option without a federal privacy law in place which would regulate data access and usage in the United States. Without this, things can get terrifying pretty quickly and especially for Black communities.
It's important for all of us to pay attention, particularly because we've learned from this before. Historically, African-American's have been tracked since the slave trade. "Protection Papers," also known as "Freedom Papers" or "Free Papers," were what free slaves used to certify their status as free persons in daily life. It essentially gave them their freedom to come and go as they pleased. Immunity certificates and other health status certificates will be akin to digital “Freedom Papers” if mobile contact tracing is left unregulated.
To add insult to injury, coronavirus vaccinations will likely go out to those affected first and the most. This new mobile contact tracing can, and likely will, be used to identify infection and contagion. Because of higher infection and morbidity in the Black community, vaccines will likely start here first. Vaccines are currently being fast tracked and not going through the typical trial processes. It's also not a stretch to see how vaccines that have not been thoroughly proper testing could be deployed to the communities most affected first, i.e. Black communities. Any side effects will be felt by Black people before anyone else, similar to vaccination testing done during the Tuskegee Experiment.
Although Google and Apple are touting contact tracing as opt-in and voluntarily, during times of crisis what is often presented to us as optional is actually mandatory. For instance, the use of an app to get access to things you may need. With the support of the government behind them, this is a very real possibility. Public data trusts where consumers give access to their data and the terms of usage in states of emergency, like pandemics, can be a solution that takes the idea of perceived control of your data via “opting-in” to true control of your data overall.
So, is there anything that any of us can do? Yes and no. It doesn't make sense, in time or effort, to try to fight BigTech into modifying what is already in motion especially when they likely have the support of the federal government . But, what we can do is push the federal government to adopt a federal privacy law that protects all of us. BigTech has your data already so what we really need are laws to say who has access to that data and for how long especially in cases of national emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, you should have the right to have access to your own data and be able to transfer it easily. This will allow for an emergence of new services that can allow you to easily limit who has access to your information and put you back in control.
Consider signing this Change.org petition to limit location tracking and data sharing during coronavirus pandemic and sending it to key members in Congress and the Federal Trade Commission. We need to make sure every American has a voice in this fight and their unique history is represented in any new data privacy laws.
Angela Benton is a pioneer of diversity in the technology industry. As Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Streamlytics, she's democratizing data access and ownership.
Getty Stock Image