Who Makes the Hardware Makes the Rules

Why countries keep bowing to Apple and Google’s contact tracing app requirements.

Last month, after Apple and Google announced some changes to their forthcoming attempt to track the spread of COVID-19, I noted the surprising degree to which tech giants are setting the terms of the pandemic response. They own the hardware, they own the software, and national governments who would use it to find new cases of COVID-19 have to do it on the companies’ terms.

This week, that process began to accelerate. But first, a bit of background.

The Apple-Google collaboration will ask you to opt in to a system that causes your phone to emit Bluetooth signals to other phones around you. When you are in close proximity to another person for an extended period of time — more than five minutes, typically — both of your phones record the interaction. When a person tests positive for COVID-19, they will have the option of anonymously notifying other phones that they may have been exposed to the virus and encouraging their contacts to self-quarantine or seek treatment.

A sticking point between the tech giants and nation states has been who will process the exposure notifications. Apple and Google want to process the notifications on users’ phones without storing them on a central server, to preserve the maximum degree of privacy possible. Some European countries, meanwhile, have sought to process notifications on a central server, in the hopes that having more detailed information will help them identify additional exposures and more rapidly contain the spread of the virus.

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