Up to two billion smartphone users around the world won’t be able to use the coronavirus contact tracing app currently being developed by Apple and Google.
Hundreds of millions of older smartphones still in active use don’t have the required software and Bluetooth to run the new app, which could be released next month.
The app will warn smartphone owners that they have come into contact with someone who has since been infected with the virus, advising them to self-isolate.
This data will then be provided to governments and public health authorities globally to help stop the spread of the illness.
But devices more than five years old lack the necessary wireless chips and software to run the app, meaning key data demographics could be lost, an expert says.
A mobile’s Bluetooth signals will be used to track every other phone its user has come into close contact with, and people will be alerted if they may have been exposed to someone with Covid-19
‘The underlying technology limitation is around the fact that there are still some phones in use that won’t have the necessary Bluetooth or latest operating system,’ Ben Wood, analyst at CCS Insight, told the Financial Times.
‘If you are in a disadvantaged group and have an old device or a feature phone, you will miss out on the benefits that this app could potentially offer.’
The two billion active smartphones that will miss out are likely to include poorer and older people, who are also among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.
‘In all, close to two billion will not be benefiting from this initiative globally,’ said Neil Shah, analyst at Counterpoint.
‘And most of these users with the incompatible devices hail from the lower-income segment or from the senior segment which actually are more vulnerable to the virus.’
Google and Apple are opening up their mobile operating systems so both iPhone and Android devices can run the contact tracing app.
The new app, which will be available for smartphones running Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS, was announced earlier this month.
‘Software developers are contributing by crafting technical tools to help combat the virus and save lives,’ Google said in a blog post.
The rival companies are opening up their mobile operating systems so both iPhone and Android devices can run contact tracing apps
‘In this spirit of collaboration, Google and Apple are announcing a joint effort to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design.’
When two people come into contact, each person’s phone will exchange Bluetooth signals via specific chips that are used to detect proximity between devices.
If a person using the app then tests positive for COVID-19, they can then upload their movements to a public database.
Other users will then be able to anonymously check their own logs against others to see if they’ve potentially been exposed to a carrier of the virus.
If there’s a match, the person will receive a message indicating when and where they might have been exposed, along with guidance as to whether they should just watch for symptoms, seek testing or self-quarantine.
But the chips that begin the process are absent from a quarter of smartphones in active use globally today, according to Counterpoint Research, while 1.5 billion people in total use feature phones that don’t run Android or iOS at all.
There is then the issue of people who don’t use a mobile phone or even take one with them during their daily exercise allowance.
When announcing the app, the two tech giants insist that the data will be anonymous and that ‘privacy, transparency and consent are of utmost importance’.
Each phone will record the date, time, distance, and duration of contact between the two devices, but it won’t use GPS data to ensure the logs remain anonymous.
The app will also periodically create new ID codes for each device to make it hard to for authorities to trace an interaction back to any specific individuals.
However, civil liberties groups have expressed concerns about the growing online surveillance related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Physician and telehealth expert Eugene Gu said Google and Apple’s contact tracing technology has ‘big implications’ for privacy rights and freedom.
‘While it may be useful for tracking sick contacts during the coronavirus pandemic, this same technology can be used to persecute political dissidents in a surveillance police state,’ he tweeted.
Digital surveillance rolled out to curb the virus should be limited in time and scope, more than 100 rights groups also said earlier this month, warning governments not to use the crisis as cover for pervasive snooping.
‘An increase in state digital surveillance powers, such as obtaining access to mobile phone location data, threatens privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association,’ the groups, including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Privacy International, said in a statement.
WHAT ARE TECH COMPANIES DOING ABOUT COVID-19?
The social network is giving the World Health Organisation as many free ads as it needs in a bid to get accurate health information to users of the platform as clearly as possible.
It also launched the ‘Coronavirus Information Centre’ – a dedicated webpage with COVID-19 resources and advice.
This is being promoted at the top of users’ News Feeds, directing them to the latest updates and guidance from the NHS and WHO.
Facebook is also making its Workplace platform available to governments and emergency services for free in a bid to help those dealing with the coronavirus.
All government organisations globally, at a national or local level, are eligible to claim 12 months of free access to the premium tier of Workplace.
Twitter also recently resolved to delete tweets from its site that promote conspiracy theories, misleading or dangerous advice and other harmful ideas relating to coronavirus.
Tweets that deny ‘established scientific facts’ and expert guidance regarding the virus will be marked as harmful and removed, the site said in a blog post.
It gave examples of inaccurate tweets that would be deleted swiftly, including ‘people with dark skin are immune to COVID-19 due to melanin production’, ‘use aromatherapy and essential oils to prevent COVID-19’ and ‘the news about washing your hands is propaganda for soap companies, stop washing your hands!’.
Google also teamed up with WHO to launch an SOS Alert dedicated to the coronavirus, which appears at the top of search results when users type ‘coronavirus’.
The search engine is prioritising information on the virus from the WHO, including official WHO updates on the spread of the virus and how to stay safe.
Google is also working with Apple on a contact tracing app for Android and iOS, which would link phones across both operating systems to later notify users that they’ve come into contact with someone who contracted coronavirus.