FEATURE: 09.18.20 – The latest effort by Apple to embed exposure notifications for contact tracing right into its mobile operating system has some iPhone users weary of being exposed to something other than the coronavirus (COVID-19): Big Brother.
Amid a global pandemic and the battle to curb the spread of COVID-19, the website Cult of Mac has reported that some iPhone users are refusing to install an iOS software update with a new built-in contact tracing feature due to concerns over privacy and fears of being tracked. For these Apple smartphone owners, 2020 has suddenly become 1984, the 1949 novel Written by English author, George Orwell, whose book was used as the basis for Apple’s iconic ad for the Macintosh that was televised during Super Bowl XVIII — in the same year as the book’s title — and famously said, “…why 1984 won’t be like, 1984.”
The dystopian novel by Orwell, according to a Wikipedia entry on the book, centers thematically on the consequences of mass surveillance and totalitarianism (just two of the three themes outlined) and in an ironic twist of fate? It is now Apple that is being compared to the antagonist in 1984, Big Brother himself.
In its report, Cult of Mac cited a handful of tweets posted to Twitter from Apple smartphone owners who shared their aversion to exposure notifications being embedded into the iOS software and were quoted by multiple media outlets around the web. A tweet from CNN about the new system and how iPhone users will no longer need to download a separate app to opt in to the contact tracing feature evoked references to 1984. One such individual tweeted that it was “another step towards a totally surveillanced state” while someone else tweeted “no thanks Big Brother.”
The software update that ignited the controversy — iOS 13.7 (which was released on September 1) — was designed to make contact tracing easier for states in the U.S. to implement. However, as reported by Cult of Mac, some people claimed its true purpose was more sinister, seeing it as just another way for Apple to keep tabs on its users and for the government to track its citizens.
Cult of Mac pointed out that Apple made it very clear that while contact tracing is built in to iOS 13.7 and the new iOS 14 release (which, at the time, was still forthcoming but has since dropped on September 16) — the feature, when installed, is disabled by default and iPhone users must opt in to participate.
Apple smartphone owners must go into the Settings app, then tap “exposure notifications,” and then enable the feature manually by tapping “turn on exposure notifications,” otherwise, it is inactive until toggled on. Furthermore, if a person does opt in, and someone’s local public health department supports exposure notifications, or their state operates its own contact tracing app, that person’s iPhone will collect and share anonymized identifiers (which Cult of Mac stressed do not reveal a person’s name, age, location, or any other personal information) as an individual comes into Bluetooth range of other smartphones.
Apple’s exposure notifications were originally made available to iPhone users earlier this year back in May via an iOS software update which was released following the announcement in April of an Apple partnership with Google to make Bluetooth-based contact tracing technology enabled on its respective mobile operating systems.
On the day that the particular software update — iOS 13.5 (which was released on May 21) — dropped and was made available to iPhone users, NBC News reported that the two tech companies said that the new exposure notifications feature would solve some of the main technological challenges that some states had been having in building Bluetooth-based contact tracing apps. In the report, it was revealed that many government agencies had already tried previously, and, mostly unsuccessfully, to roll out their own contact tracing apps that often used GPS to track people’s location (a technology that Apple and Google do not use in its notification system because of privacy concerns) but many of them had encountered technical problems on smartphones (including Apple’s iPhone and phones using Google’s Android operating system), something that the companies’ solution would help alleviate.
NBC News reported that some privacy advocates favored Apple’s and Google’s approach because it offered more privacy and security, referring to a joint statement issued by the two tech companies at the time which said that each company believe that its strong privacy protections were the best way to encourage use of contact tracing apps.
Wired magazine reported — on the day that iOS 13.7 and Apple’s embedded exposure notifications were released — that Apple and Google were taking matters into its own hands and would now also provide the technology for sending and receiving alerts for COVID-19 without the need for a third party contact tracing app. The change was made based on conversations with state public health officials who told the two tech companies that they were having difficulty building the apps themselves.
Originally, when Apple and Google teamed up back in April of this year, the plan (at the time) was to leverage the built-in Bluetooth technology within people’s smartphones (in conjunction with each company’s respective mobile operating systems) for contact tracing where iPhones and Android-based phones would keep track, anonymously, of other devices nearby. Provided that a contact tracing app was downloaded onto a person’s phone, if the individual was diagnosed with COVID-19, alerts would be sent out to others who had recently been in close proximity to the infected person. This would help states (via their local public health departments) expedite the tracking down of people exposed to the virus in order to mitigate its spread.
According to Wired, Apple and Google would provide the technical framework and guidance for its use but it was up to each state to build their own contact tracing apps using the tools from both tech companies and integrate them into their pandemic response.
However, as Wired reported, leaving states to individually sort things out hasn’t worked very well and in the nearly five months since Apple and Google provided those very tools, only six states in the entire U.S. have launched contact tracing apps. According to the magazine, it hasn’t helped either that so many other critical elements (e.g., testing, resources for the infected, and manual contact tracing) continue to be in disarray at the local, state, and even federal level. In addition, the government has expressed uncertainty over just how much digital contact tracing will actually help the overall response to the pandemic.
Furthermore? Wired reported that the creation of contact tracing apps by individual states had become mired in battles over tech companies’ influence and concerns for users’ privacy.
With the exposure notifications now embedded into the two tech companies’ respective mobile operating systems, Apple and Google have both said that each one’s commitment to its users’ privacy remains the same and neither will collect any identifying data, instead, relying on anonymous identifiers to keep track of which smartphones are near each other. In addition to smartphone owners opting in to the feature on their devices, according to Wired, states will now need to also opt in as well to the new system by sending in basic information for users: such as how to get tested if someone receives an alert or how to reach local public health officials after a positive test for COVID-19.
Contact tracing, as described by Cult of Mac, is a proven method for controlling outbreaks of contagious diseases and traditionally takes place manually. Government agencies and local public health departments hire armies of workers to interview sick people, attempting to pinpoint where infected patients have traveled and who they might have inadvertently exposed to the contagion in question such as COVID-19. In the smartphone era, tech companies, like Apple and Google, are trying to make contact tracing go digital.
Wired reported that it is still far from clear how much digital contact tracing will move the U.S.’s pandemic response forward. In the NBC NEWS report back in May, Apple and Google said that user adoption was key to the success of contact tracing apps.
In response to the NBC News report, which a Twitter user shared in their post about the iOS 13.5 update with contact tracing, one Apple smartphone owner replied to the original poster expressing their concern (which was cited by Cult of Mac), tweeting that this was a DANGEROUS precedent, adding that including a tracking device was “another step towards 1984.”