Apple and Google will alert smartphone owners to possible COVID-19 exposure, USA Today reported Tuesday. The alerts will come in the form of voluntary push notifications that the companies say will not compromise participants’ privacy. Geolocation is already in use on smartphones.
According to USA Today, Apple and Google will soon use push notifications to fight COVID-19. “The companies announced the news on Tuesday and the effort is called Exposure Notifications Express,” the article said. “It’s an opt-in-based system that lets your local public health agency alert you to potential coronavirus exposure via a notice on your smartphone. It’ll also allow the agency to guide residents on actions to take if they’ve been exposed, according to Apple and Google.”
The article goes on to say that both companies addressed privacy concerns by saying that the program “doesn’t share location data from a specific smartphone with the government.” Instead, it depends on “random Bluetooth identifiers” that keep users anonymous.
Many companies already use geolocation to determine the physical whereabouts of smartphone users. Most of us also offer that information unprompted.
Global Positioning System 101
“A GPS system works by interacting with satellites that orbit the Earth,” said Professor Paul Rosenzweig, Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School. “It was developed in the 1970s for military use, and was opened for commercial development only in 1995. It’s the basis for the electronic navigator in your car and on your smartphone. Without it, Uber and Google Maps just wouldn’t work.”
Professor Rosenzweig said that the key to GPS systems isn’t geography, but time, which is why their satellites carry atomic clocks. All the clocks are synced to one another and to clocks on the ground. They broadcast their location and time continuously while a receiver listens for them. Using four satellites, it measures small differences in the signals it receives to pinpoint a location.
“The general accuracy of a commercial GPS system falls within about three meters, or 10 feet,” Professor Rosenzweig said. “But, in practice, it can be even more precise, since the receiver is continuously calculating its location and averaging the measurements it’s making.”
GPS is used for navigation; it’s implemented into most driverless car concepts; and it’s the key to military precision-guided munitions.
What Your Selfies Say about You
We often voluntarily give away our geolocation information whether we realize it or not. Obviously, social media “check-in” functions let people know when we’ve been to a restaurant, gym, shopping mall, or other registered location. However, it goes far beyond that. One of the best examples is your smartphone camera.
“Your camera stores a bunch of data about every picture you take: It records the aperture, shutter speed, ISO speed, camera mode, focal distance, and sometimes even more than that,” Professor Rosenzweig said. “All of this is stored in the Exchangeable Image File (EXIF) data, an extra piece of information attached to every picture file your camera creates. Today, one thing that the photo puts in the EXIF is your geolocation.”
Professor Rosenzweig explained that virtually all smartphone cameras geotag their locations. Once you’ve put that picture online, it’s fairly simple for someone to download it and see the EXIF data, including that geolocation.
The Apple-Google team-up of producing geolocation data for COVID-19 exposure may sound like an invasion of privacy, but it’s a smaller step than we might imagine, at first. We already voluntarily provide our geolocation using social media apps and every time we take a picture with our smartphone cameras, unless we’ve changed the privacy settings.
Professor Paul Rosenzweig contributed to this article. Professor Rosenzweig is a Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School. He earned his JD from the University of Chicago Law School and then served as a law clerk to the Honorable R. Lanier Anderson III of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.