Apple and Google Face Off Against Europe Over Contact Tracing

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(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Europe and Silicon Valley have long been at each other’s throats. Brussels views the Bay Area giants as a cabal of data cowboys with little regard for user privacy, while the Valley bristles at a perceived technophobia it deems antithetical to progress.

In the topsy-turvy world of Covid-19, the roles have been reversed. Europeans are eager to extract more user data from cellphones to help combat the pandemic, while Apple Inc. and Google impose strict limits on the intel that health authorities can siphon off.

The contretemps focuses on contact-tracing apps. If we are to prevent a resurgence of the virus once the lockdowns end, then contact tracing will be a key pillar of containment, alongside widespread testing and adequate health-care provisions. And Apple and Google have developed a digital solution that should make the process considerably easier—but in a way that significantly restricts how much data leaves the user’s handset. Their so-called decentralized approach means that most of the magic happens on the phone itself, rather than on a central server. That’s left some health authorities in a tizzy: If they had more data on the number of people an infected individual has encountered, as well as where and for how long, it might help proactively identify new outbreak hot spots earlier.

French Digital Minister Cédric O has accused Apple and Google of constraining public-health decisions. There’s a certain irony to that outcry: Under the terms of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, France has imposed the largest penalty so far on a tech giant, fining Google €50 million ($54 million) in 2019 for exploiting user data.

The tech companies fear that handsets could be seen as vectors of government monitoring. That’s particularly the case for Apple. While Google’s business is built on user data, Apple has made user privacy a key pledge, even as Google pays it billions of dollars a year to be the iPhone’s default search engine.

Helping tackle health-care emergencies might seem a no-brainer, but Apple is right to be concerned about horizontal portability: If it builds tools that can be used for one purpose, there’s a risk they could be exploited for another. Even if we trust governments in the U.K. or France to manage data responsibly, that might not be the case for, say, Hungary—a European Union member whose leader has used the pandemic to tighten his control. Germany had to abandon plans for its own centralized app after a popular backlash.

We’re left with a situation in which the tech giants are, for once, dictating a strand of policy to Europe. Facing a choice between building their own possibly unreliable offerings or using the more restrictive Apple-Google tools, most European nations are choosing the latter.
 
Webb is the European tech columnist for Bloomberg Opinion
 
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