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Would you let Google, Apple contact-trace your family? Here's what Reddit's Alexis Ohanian says

Key Points
  • Google and Apple are developing contact-tracing technology for iPhone and Android smartphones to help stop the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
  • After a decade of erosion in public trust for big technology companies, many are wary of the data privacy implications.
  • Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian says the tech could really help, but lack of trust is a big issue for him — and should be for every American.

In this article

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian on the privacy debate surrounding virus tracing

Your smartphone data could be used for apps that tech giants, including Alphabet's Google and Apple, are backing with supportive interfaces to track the spread of coronavirus, but should you or your family members agree to use the contact-tracing technology?

Tech experts think it could be dangerous.

"Would I recommend that my dad do it? I don't know," said Alexis Ohanian, technology entrepreneur and Reddit co-founder, on CNBC's "Squawk Box" Tuesday.

Tech companies and governments around the world are working together to build mobile apps that would harness location and movement data from smartphones to determine the efficacy of social distancing and pinpoint the origin of new positive cases.

Apple and Google are backing a way to trace and notify people who may have been infected with Covid-19 using Bluetooth signals from people's phones anonymously. Apple and Google's system — they are not building contact-tracing apps but rather application programming interfaces (APIs) into iOS and Android that enable apps from public health groups — is one of several competing systems that say they can trace anyone in contact with infected people without compromising privacy.

The Bluetooth data will be encrypted, and the phones' identifiers will change every 15 minutes or so.

Apple and Google on Monday released screenshots and sample code demonstrating what contact-tracing software might look like on an iOS and Android. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week released new guidance for contact-tracing apps, which will help companies build onto their joint project.

The system first took shape at Apple under a project code-named Bubble.

Ohanian said the technology could be useful, but unfortunately comes as public trust in large tech companies is "at an all-time low" after sinking over the last decade.

"I think we would need to see a really transparent and hopefully accountable ... company to give us the confidence to say like, 'All right, yeah, we'd be willing to do this,'" said Ohanian, who is a member of the CNBC Technology Executive Council Advisory Board. "It's quite unfortunate, because technology could really be helping us here in very meaningful ways, but the thing that has been eroded is that trust."

Singapore's contact tracing app, TraceTogether, which is being used as a preventive measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus in the city-state.
Catherine Lai | AFP via Getty Images

Nearly 60% of Americans in a Washington Post poll said they would not agree to use contact-tracing technology. Coronavirus fears could sway more users to share their data if it means ending the pandemic, but Oxford researchers say it could require more than half the total population to agree to contact tracing to be effective.

The Apple and Google effort has won some guarded support from privacy groups, and countries with strict privacy laws, such as Germany, which was originally reluctant to endorse the approach. The tech giants also responded to criticisms from privacy advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Technologically, there's a lot of value that can be created here ... and there are actually lots of ways to still safeguard privacy even with tools like this," Ohanian said. "The bigger issue is the lack of trust and the fact that you're going to need to get users over the mental hurdle of being willing to have this information stored on Google or someone else's servers."

Apple has had one of the stronger records in the tech industry of focusing on privacy, even taking its defense of individual privacy into battles at the highest levels of the U.S. government, in cases where the Justice Department and FBI have wanted access to user phones.

Past survey work has revealed public wariness about health information specifically. Only 11% of people said they were comfortable sharing their health data with tech companies, according to a 2018 survey, though Alphabet's Google fared well relative to other companies in that survey.

"When it comes to health, there is a higher standard than typical social media, sharing everything about yourself," Ohanian said.

Companies including Apple and Google have been moving more into the health-care sector — and becoming involved in debates over patient data — where they see big opportunities for growing use of technology.

Other countries are considering a different approach to contain the virus.

The U.K.'s National Health Service, whose app will be available within weeks, said it supports a "centralized" framework rather than a "decentralized" one used by companies like Google and Apple.

A decentralized system like the one used by Apple and Google would be anonymous and would not require a phone number or email address to use. A centralized approach like that of the NHS sends data to public health authorities so they can directly contact people who may have been infected.

Although there are ways to prevent your data from being collected by tech companies, Google spokesman Johnny Luu said in a statement to the Washington Post that the company's contact-tracing system "would not involve sharing data about any individual's location, movement or contacts."