One of the biggest stories to come out of the COVID-19 outbreak has been the announced partnership between Apple and Google. The two companies, which represent the vast majority of the mobile phone market, have come to whether to develop an app intended to help track the spread of the virus. This is accomplished through mobile Bluetooth beacon technology, which was originally intended for advertising. But, with a little change to the concept, it is going to used to determine whether you have come in contact with someone who has been exposed to the virus.
The original beacon concept has been used in retail stores and sports arenas for a couple of years. We even used to carry a beacon in our pockets wherever we went (it's currently sitting on my desk). It sends out a Bluetooth Low Energy field and, when a phone with Bluetooth turned on and a beacon-enabled app installed comes in contact with it, it reports that contact and the location back to a central server. Once reported, an app can respond to the contact if it wishes, giving an option to open a link, informing you about a sale on a product you're near, etc.
Apple and Google intend to use the same concept to determine whether you have come into contact with someone who is infected or exposed to the infection. Rather than using fixed beacons, each phone with the contact tracing app installed will be both a receiver and a transmitter, essentially becoming a beacon itself. This will allow the companies to track whether your device has been close to the device of someone who has been identified as being infected with COVID-19.
On the surface, this seems like a decent idea. Being able to track the contact path could have the potential to help to reduce the spread of the disease. However, there are a number of major hurdles to overcome before success could be possible, and they are massive. The most limiting factor is the public trust, or lack thereof, of the big tech firms. Over the past few years, public opinion has slid from one of trust to almost complete distrust of these companies, heralded by the disasters at Facebook.
Unfortunately, for this system to work, at least half of the population is going to have to use it. That means opting-in to an elaborate data collection program, which includes who you interact with. It will also include an almost constant knowledge of where you are because you are infrequently out of range of another smartphone. The chances of getting enough people to opt-in to this program grow slimmer by the day.
The other big problem with the concept is how easily it could be manipulated. With just the reported beacon identifier for the user, a series of false beacons could be set up to spread false information. If the user attached to those beacons is reported positive for COVID-19 and the beacons are placed in the right locations, an entire neighborhood, town, or even city, could falsely be reported as in danger. As the people who come in contact with the false beacons interact with other people, the false spread could speed up. One false-positive and the entire network fails.
While conceptually the project could help, in the end, it will be an embarrassment for both companies involved.