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Apple and Google's Coronavirus Efforts Remind Us How Little Control We Have Over Our Health Data

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A joint poll between University of Maryland researchers and the Washington Post released this week found most consumers, for a variety of reasons, are either unable or unwilling to download the proposed contact-tracing tech Apple and Google are developing to track the spread of the coronavirus. While some consumers in the study resisted adopting the tech, for many, it just came down to their inability to trust major tech corporations—companies that have had tentacles in America’s healthcare system for years.

Looking at the numbers, there’s an even split between the consumers who trust these companies with their data and those who don’t. Of the smartphone-owning adults surveyed by the researchers, 41 percent of respondents marked themselves as likely to use a contact-tracing app using the Apple-Google tech, while 41 percent said they “probably” or “definitely” would not. The remaining 18 percent didn’t have smartphones at all, either for economic reasons or because they’re part of the senior class that’s historically been smartphone-shy, if not smartphone-less.

Of course, folks need a phone to take part in this phone-based experiment. This jointly-created “exposure notification” API, as Apple and Google call it, is being created so that it can be baked into healthcare apps from public health authorities. Essentially, the tech turns your phone into a Bluetooth beacon that projects a unique, ever-changing tracking code—a “temporary exposure key”—to the outside world. When someone else has one of the healthcare apps made with the Apple-Google API, and they pass within six feet of the first person, their phones swap these details. If either of these people tested positive for covid-19—and plugged that intel into their apps—the other person will get a notification of their possible contact with an infected individual. These same details can be shared with one of the public healthcare authorities to which Apple and Google grant API access, provided the user grants them permission to do so.


That 41 percent of folks in the do-not-adopt category have every reason to be skeptical. Between the potential for Google to share covid-19 consumer health data to private pharmaceutical firms through its dedicated coronavirus site, Apple’s dragnet of consumer health data, and the sheer fact that most of what we think of as “health data” is entirely exempt from U.S. privacy laws, well, it just doesn’t sound pretty. But the sheer fact of the matter is that these companies (and many others) are doing what they can to snag people’s health data, whether they download one of these exposure notification apps or not.

On the backends of hospitals across the country, the task of handling the minutiae of medical records is increasingly being handed off to Google, and Apple’s been noticing its own uptick since launching Apple Health—essentially its own spin on a records management system—in 2018. In both of these cases, the gatekeepers holding these companies at bay aren’t phone-owners and the apps they download, but an increasingly taxed medical system that will take the easiest route they can, even if that route leads directly into the heart of Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, what the hospitals themselves are doing with this data is really anybody’s guess.


This isn’t to discount anyone’s (incredibly valid!) concerns about the privacy of contact-tracing tech currently hawked by Big Tech, nor is it an attempt to freak people out with the tightening chokehold these companies are trying to squeeze on the American healthcare system writ large. Rather, Apple and Google’s efforts to help wrangle the coronavirus crisis are a reminder that health-data privacy is already largely out of your control.