Google: Researchers prototype location data-based notification apps


After Asian countries used mass surveillance of smartphones to trace contacts and halt the spread of the coronavirus, Western countries such as the UK and Germany are trying to find less-invasive ways to use phones to collect and share data about infections that would work within data privacy laws and retain public trust. Nearly half of virus transmissions may occur before the individual shows symptoms of the disease. At Oxford researchers are working on a notification app that would notify contacts as soon as someone tests positive. At MIT researchers have prototyped the Private Kit: Safe Paths app that saves up to 28 days of a user's GPS data, logged every five minutes; users can opt to share this data with health authorities so they can publicise the places where others may have been put at risk. In Germany, where privacy laws allow the government to compel a technology company to share an individual's location data in the interests of national security and the government would have to find or legislate for a legal basis for indiscriminate mass tracking of individuals, the "GeoHealth" app in development relies partly on location data that Google already stores for its account holders; anonymised and stored on a central server, data analytics would compare users' movements to those of infected people and send colour-coded alerts based on how recently they may have encountered the virus. One issue is determining how many people need to voluntarily use these apps in order to slow the spread; gaps in the data may lead to a false sense of security.


Writer: Kelly Servick
Publication: Science