Americans are surprisingly open to letting their phones be used for coronavirus tracking

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Programming note: The Interface will be off on Thursday.

Today Apple and Google released an initial version of the API that represents the first phase of their joint effort to enable public health authorities to quickly identify people who may have been exposed to new cases of COVID-19. By mid-May it should be available to most health agencies. And so it’s time to revisit a question we first asked here three weeks ago: will Americans actually use these apps?

That’s the question posed in a new survey conducted by the University of Maryland and the Washington Post. The findings are mixed, report Craig Timberg, Drew Harwell and Alauna Safarpour:

Nearly 3 in 5 Americans say they are either unable or unwilling to use the infection-alert system under development by Google and Apple, suggesting that it will be difficult to persuade enough people to use the app to make it effective against the coronavirus pandemic, a Washington PostUniversity of Maryland poll finds. […]

Among the 82 percent of Americans who do have smartphones, willingness to use an infection-tracing app is split evenly, with 50 percent saying they definitely or probably would use such an app and an equal percentage saying they probably or definitely would not. Willingness runs highest among Democrats and people reporting they are worried about a COVID-19 infection making them seriously ill. Resistance is higher among Republicans and people reporting a lower level of personal worry about getting the virus.

The first thing to say about this is that it’s very difficult to predict what people will do when they are asked to begin participating in Big Tech’s exposure notification system. It might be true that, for the reasons of diminished trust in tech companies explored at some length in the Post, a majority of Americans will indeed opt out of using the system. It seems to me to be just as likely that, when presented with a simple pop-up box on their phones asking if they want to participate, some healthy percentage of Americans just tap “yes.” (In fact, 59 percent of survey respondents said they would “be comfortable” using the app to broadcast the fact that they are positive for COVID-19.) The whole appeal of the Apple-Google approach is that it makes participation dead simple; I suspect that simplicity will yield real benefits to public health authorities.

The second thing to say is that if 50 percent of Americans did participate in the Apple-Google scheme, that would be pretty huge! Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Natasha Singer and Aaron Krolik explain why in the New York Times:

Only 25,000 people in North Dakota, about 3 percent of the population, have downloaded the state’s app, which before last week was available only for iPhones. Last month, Singapore introduced a voluntary contact-tracing app, but only about 1.1 million people — 20 percent of the population — have downloaded it. Norway’s app has caught on more quickly, with nearly 30 percent of residents signing up for it since it was released about a week and a half ago.

Still, a recent study by epidemiologists at Oxford University estimated that 60 percent of the population in a given area would need to use an automated app that traces contacts and notifies users of exposure, combined with other tactics such as broader testing and the quarantining of the most vulnerable people, for the app to contain the virus.

The primary challenge of getting people to use these exposure notification systems is to get them to download the app in the first place. Sometime this summer, Apple and Google will essentially install the functionality on your phone for you — and, with your permission, begin using it immediately.

The Times goes on to quote an expert in disease transmission who says that the effectiveness of exposure notification scales along with usage. So, while 20 percent adoption of an exposure notification system in your community would not be ideal, it would be much more helpful than 10 percent adoption. And if exposure notification appeared to be working — if public health agencies use it as part of a broader scheme relying on human beings to do more old-fashioned contact tracing — you can imagine big campaigns within communities to get more people to opt in. (Or your employer forcing you to!)

Of course, it’s right to worry about the privacy and public-health implications of building and relying on technologies like these. Several governments are collecting data about their citizens’ physical locations along with information about smartphones coming into proximity, and processing that data on central servers. A Times analysis found that, for some reason, India’s national exposure notification app was sending users’ locations to YouTube (?).

And it’s easy to focus on the more exciting work of developing new technologies to fight the pandemic instead of on more proven methods of reducing new infections: widespread testing, isolating new cases, and using human beings to trace the contacts they had while they were infectious. (We need a lot more, by the way.)

But at this point, nearly every expert I’ve spoken to on the subject believes that tech-based solutions can augment the work of public health departments and potentially make an important contribution to ending the pandemic. And in such a world, it’s worth considering both high-profile solutions like ones being built by Apple and Google — and the alternatives being peddled in the shadows.

For example, what if your contacts were notified about your COVID-19 infection not by an anonymous message relayed by Bluetooth signals between phones, as with Apple and Google, but by a spyware company whose stock in trade is breaking into criminals’ phones? Joel Schectman, Christopher Bing, and Jack Stubbs raise that possibility in Reuters:

Cellebrite’s marketing overtures are part of a wave of efforts by at least eight surveillance and cyber-intelligence companies attempting to sell repurposed spy and law enforcement tools to track the virus and enforce quarantines, according to interviews with executives and non-public company promotional materials reviewed by Reuters.

The executives declined to specify which countries have purchased their surveillance products, citing confidentiality agreements with governments. But executives at four of the companies said they are piloting or in the process of installing products to counter coronavirus in more than a dozen countries in Latin America, Europe and Asia. A Delhi police spokesman said the force wasn’t using Cellebrite for coronavirus containment. Reuters is not aware of any purchases by the U.S. government.

(We’ve seen similar efforts from software built originally to track the movements of refugees.)

Here we find a meaningful difference in the pandemic response between the Big Tech companies and the surveillance tech companies. One is opt-in and explained in public documents; the other is mandatory and takes place in the shadows. At the moment we don’t know which approach will be more effective. But I do know which one I prefer.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

⬆️ Trending up: Twitter is making available a stream of tweets related to COVID-19 to approved researchers and developers. They’ll get access to tens of millions of tweets a day, making it possible for them to study the spread of the disease, misinformation, and more. This is great. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)

⬆️ Trending up: The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is giving $13.6 million to fund a research collaboration between UC San Francisco, Stanford University, and the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub. The aim is to better understand the spread of COVID-19 across the San Francisco Bay Area.

⬇️ Trending down: Amazon is cracking down on internal communication after a surge in worker activism. The company told employees who manage listservs of more than 500 people that they are required to have employee moderators pre-approve posts on their mailing lists. (Shirin Ghaffary and Jason Del Rey / Recode)

⬇️ Trending down: Amazon is buying thermal cameras to take workers’ temperatures from a company that has been blacklisted by the United States “over allegations it helped China detain and monitor the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.” (Krystal Hu and Jeffrey Dastin / Reuters)


Why is the coronavirus so confusing? Ed Yong delivers another urgent, sweeping analysis at The Atlantic:

The variability of COVID-19 is also perplexing doctors. The disease seems to wreak havoc not only on lungs and airways, but also on hearts, blood vessels, kidneys, guts, and nervous systems. It’s not clear if the virus is directly attacking these organs, if the damage stems from a bodywide overreaction of the immune system, if other organs are suffering from the side effects of treatments, or if they are failing due to prolonged stays on ventilators.

Many US labs are processing coronavirus diagnostic tests far below their actual capacity. The shortfall stems partly from guidelines that limit testing to the sickest patients and front-line workers as well as a lack of centralized system to identify and use capacity. (Brianna Abbott and Sarah Krouse / The Wall Street Journal)

A promising new saliva-based test for COVID-19 has some researchers hoping that it could help solve the ongoing testing shortage. (Apoorva Mandavilli / New York Times)

Facebook and YouTube have been split on whether to remove videos from two controversial doctors who have called for an easing of quarantine restrictions in American communities. YouTube took them down; Facebook has so far left them up. Health experts have condemned their claims. (Brandy Zadrozny / NBC News)

Elon Musk has been spreading doubt and confusion about the novel coronavirus for months. Now he’s promoting medical misinformation. (Russell Brandom / The Verge)

Here are the plans that some tech companies have to re-open their offices and bring workers back into them. They involve temperature checks, plexiglass partitions, and two people at a time in conference rooms. No thank you! (Kate Clark, Cory Weinberg and Zoë Bernard / The Information)

A team of NASA engineers developed a ventilator for COVID-19 patients in a month. (Loren Grush / The Verge)

Remote test proctoring is seeing a huge increase in usage during the pandemic. It’s also creeping students out. (Monica Chin / The Verge)

Cybercrime has skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, governments are turning to civilian Slack groups with cybersecurity professionals for help. (Kevin Collier / NBC)

Virus tracker

Total cases in the US: More than 1,037,400

Total deaths in the US: At least 60,200

Reported cases in California: 47,087

Total test results (positive and negative) in California: 603,139

Reported cases in New York: 305,024

Total test results (positive and negative) in New York: 872,481

Reported cases in New Jersey: 116,264

Total test results (positive and negative) in New Jersey: 241,318

Reported cases in Massachusetts: 58,302

Total test results (positive and negative) in Massachusetts: 265,618

Data from The New York Times. Test data from The COVID Tracking Project.


James Barnes, the Facebook employee who helped implement Donald Trump’s advertising strategy during the 2016 election, is now trying to aid Democrats with the same approach. Nick Corasaniti explains at the New York Times:

The coronavirus outbreak has also forced 2020 campaigns to rely on a nearly entirely digital infrastructure, from fund-raising to organizing to persuasion. Having fresh data to inform campaign arguments online is essential.

This real-time testing project aims to help fill that gap. Called “Barometer,” the project has been the obsession of James Barnes, the former Facebook employee who was heralded as an “M.V.P.” of the 2016 Trump campaign and has since dedicated his professional life to undoing the results of the last presidential election. He found a home for the project at Acronym, which also houses Pacronym.

Elsewhere, the person behind Trump’s 2016 digital strategy, Brad Parscale, gets a fresh profile in the New York Times.

The US trade representative’s office put Amazon’s web domains in Canada, France, Germany, India, and the UK on its “notorious markets” list of platforms that are believed to facilitate intellectual-property violations. The company said the hit was politically motivated. You think? (William Mauldin and Alex Leary / Wall Street Journal)

Facebook poached a senior official at the watchdog organization that is preparing to regulate social media companies in the UK. Tony Close will be the company’s director of content regulation. (Matthew Moore / The Times)

Facebook’s antitrust fight in Washington includes a debate about what constitutes the company’s market. This is a standard feature of every antitrust fight, but it’s funny to read about Facebook arguing that its true competition includes, uh, video games. (Christopher Stern / The Information)

Facebook beat a request from the federal government to wiretap Messenger in 2018. Now the American Civil Liberties Union is seeking to unseal the ruling on why, so that other messaging apps can learn from Facebook’s strategy. (Edvard Pettersson / Bloomberg)


Facebook saw a significant surge in usage over the past three months, according to its quarterly earnings report. Its stock surged after hours on a solid performance despite the pandemic. Also of note: non-advertising revenue is up 80 percent year over year, suggesting that people are buying Facebook and Oculus hardware in significant numbers. (Nick Statt / The Verge)

TikTok is thriving during the global pandemic and has been downloaded more than 2 billion times globally. It was downloaded 315 million times this quarter alone, according to third-party data. Here’s Ashley Carman at The Verge:

We’ve reached out to TikTok to confirm or comment on Sensor Tower’s data and will update if we hear back. Still, it wouldn’t be surprising if TikTok experienced its biggest growth quarter this year. It’s even a joke on TikTok that millennials are finally all joining the platform because of the pandemic and social distancing. As people have more time on their hands and are bored at home, social networks are experiencing growth, despite advertisers tightening their budgets. Snapchat grew its daily user base by 11 million people this quarter, according to its earnings call, and its competitor Marco Polo also experienced massive growth, with a 745 percent increase in signups during just the week of March 30th. Only TikTok knows its own download and usage numbers, but we expect them all to be up.

Facebook released a chatbot called Blender as an open-source resource for AI research. The company has been pouring money and resources into its Natural Language Processing technologies for years. (Andrew Tarantola / Engadget)

Facebook added the ability for users to create paid livestreams. (Chaim Gartenberg / The Verge)

Google Meet is now free for everybody! Use it before it gets killed or changes names again. (Dieter Bohn / The Verge)

Speaking of Google killing things, RIP Shoelace. (Ryan Kovatch / 9to5Google)

Microsoft’s Slack clone, Teams, rose from 44 million daily users in mid-March to 75 million today. (Emil Protalinksi / VentureBeat)

Video voicemail app Marco Polo rolled out a $10 monthly premium version, saying server costs were rapidly catching up with it amid a growth spike. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)

Things to do

Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.

Use your Canon camera as a fancy webcam and impress your coworkers.

Check out the latest streetwear fashions, lovingly recreated inside Animal Crossing. Remember when people would wear things on the street? You know, for fashion?

Get to know a homeschooling influencer. They’re getting vastly more popular on social networks as more parents have had to educate their children at home.

Understand what Disney can and cannot do to you, legally, if you tweet using the #MayThe4th hashtag next week. (They can’t do anything to you, it’s fine.)

And finally…

Finally, an element of this crisis that is truly delicious. Chloe Taylor reports at CNBC:

Belgians are being called upon to eat fries at least twice a week as more than 750,000 tons of potatoes are at risk of being thrown away.

The coronavirus crisis has led to a surplus of potatoes in the small European country, as demand for frites — a national dish of twice-fried potatoes often eaten in bars and restaurants — has slumped amid Belgium’s government-enforced lockdown.

It’s times like this I really wish I could fly to Belgium and help.

Talk to us

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