The problem with Google and Apple’s plan to trace coronavirus via your phone

April 13, 2020, 2:14 PM UTC

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Can a brilliant idea fix a broken system? Dig into the details of Google and Apple’s blockbuster announcement on Friday to add contact tracing capability to billions of mobile phones and you’ll discover an ingenious solution. But, spoiler alert: It won’t be enough to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the United States.

Contact tracing is an essential tactic in containing and combating the spread of infectious diseases. In the prototypical example, healthcare workers in Taiwan combed through the credit card receipts from a taxi driver who had become infected with the novel coronavirus and tried to warn all of the drivers’ recent customers to quarantine themselves. Now imagine that, instead of such a difficult and time-consuming tracing effort, which can’t even reach people who paid in cash, there was an instantaneous technological solution.

That’s the core idea of the program that Apple and Google are building into their mobile operating systems. Once operational, all phones constantly will emit coded identification tags using Bluetooth. At the same time, phones will record the tags of all nearby devices. The coded tags by themselves are untraceable and anonymous. But when someone finds out they have coronavirus, the infected person triggers the system to tell every phone that recorded one of their tags that the owner may have been in proximity to them. It all works through the brilliance of the same encryption technology that powers e-commerce, bitcoin, and coded emails.

Launched into a worried world filled with people who have learned not to trust big tech companies, the plan immediately met resistance. Some feared the system could be turned into a giant location tracking tool. A possible counter: Aside from the fact that Apple, Google, and too many others already have that capability, the new system relies on past proximity, not recorded locations. At the other end of the spectrum, some argued that the system wouldn’t be used enough to be valuable, citing the low uptake of a Bluetooth-based contact tracing app in Singapore. Counter: The Apple-Google solution will be built into the operating systems of every phone and connected to national health agencies’ efforts.

The big problem with the Apple-Google plan is that it exists within a deeply flawed U.S. government response to the pandemic. Without adequate testing, infected people won’t know that they are infected and won’t be able to warn others via the smartphone system. And without adequate social distancing and quarantines, containment through contact tracing will be overwhelmed by community spread.

The best hope for the new system may be after the pandemic has passed its peak and the country is getting back to work. In a situation with many fewer people vulnerable to infection and the healthcare system no longer overwhelmed, high-tech contact tracing could find a role after all.


A bunch of you last week tried to read my colleague Danielle Abril’s excellent interview with former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, “Former Google CEO: The coronavirus pandemic will make Big Tech even bigger.” Unfortunately, I included the wrong link. Click on that headline today and I promise you’ll get the actual interview.

Aaron Pressman



Just a click away. Some of the top names in fintech are jumping on board the government's $2.2 trillion stimulus program. PayPal got approval to make loans as part of the Paycheck Protection Program to its 10 million merchant customers. Intuit QuickBooks is also in on the lending program and helping customers provide the payroll information needed to apply.

Wandering the aisles. You may have had trouble recently trying to order groceries online. In a move acknowledging problems keeping up with demand, Amazon says it will stop accepting new customers for deliveries from Whole Foods or AmazonFresh. Instead, people signing up for either service will be put on a wait list. The company is also adding more pickup locations for groceries and shrinking hours at some stores to increase the time available to assemble online orders.

Uncovering the real story. Speaking of businesses adapting to the coronavirus pandemic, the New York Times has discovered a new trend: "Strip Clubs of Instagram." Some of the dancers are making a lot of money. “If I’m in the club, I’m there for eight hours,” one tells the paper. “On Instagram Live, it’s five minutes."

I'm not following you, I'm looking for you. A long-running lawsuit accusing Facebook of privacy violations akin to wiretapping got new life last week. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the class action lawsuit, ruling that Facebook users' expectations of privacy may have been violated when the company tracked their actions while they were logged out from the app.

Did anyone miss the laugh track? As I noted on Friday, Saturday Night Live returned this weekend with a bevy of socially distanced comedy. The sketch making fun of Zoom meetings lacked zing, but Tom Hanks opening monologue and Pete Davidson's twist on a Drake song were better.


Fortune has assembled a list cataloging all of the efforts by Fortune 500 companies to combat the coronavirus outbreak. Amazon's efforts have been so numerous and varied as to require a listing of their own. Julie Carrie Wong, a reporter at The Guardian, fears that the scale of Amazon's quasi-governmental efforts could further enmesh the tech giant into our lives in ways that may not end positively.

If all you care about is making sure that you have enough toilet paper, groceries and streaming entertainment to make it through the crisis, the United States of Amazon is not all that bad. I imagine that large swaths of the professional and upper middle classes will be quite content and well cared for under that regime. But as my sister recently said to me, in a paraphrase of Louis Brandeis, “We can have democracy or we can have Amazon Prime, but we can’t have both.”

The WPA put millions of Americans to work building roads and bridges and creating arts and culture that enriched America. Amazon’s goal is to enrich its shareholders. Do you trust Jeff Bezos to use his de facto regulatory power to benefit the greater good? And if you don’t, what is your recourse?


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How Fortune 500 companies are utilizing their resources and expertise during the coronavirus pandemic By Jaclyn Gallucci and Maithreyi Seetharaman

Stocks have gained 25% since their March lows—but the math doesn’t add up By Shawn Tully

Freelancers and independent contractors can now apply for SBA Paycheck Protection Program loans. Here’s what to know By Anne Sraders

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Some grammatical debates rage on forever (Oxford comma: pro or con?), but others settle down eventually. It was once the thing to argue about using two spaces after a period. Now even Microsoft has decided that doing so is a mistake. There's one less thing you have to worry about. Have a great week.

Aaron Pressman


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