Why Apple and Google are moving away from the term 'contact tracing'

The tech giants, working together to help stop the spread of COVID-19, are now saying their tools are for "exposure notification."

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
3 min read

Apple and Google have announced updates to their coronavirus tracking tools. 

Angela Lang/CNET

Two weeks ago, Apple and Google announced a major joint project to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus. Health authorities would build contact tracing apps for the tech giants' mobile platforms, which would use signals from people's phones to alert them if they've been in contact with someone who's tested positive for COVID-19. But since then, Apple and Google have been met with scrutiny and pushback over the privacy implications of such a system. Critics worry about the possibility of abuse or spying. 

To assuage those fears, the two companies on Friday outlined a series of technical tweaks to better uphold privacy, but the most important change may've been something far simpler: Saying the tools are for "exposure notification" instead of "contact tracing."

Apple and Google told reporters on a joint conference call that the new terminology is simply a more accurate description of the project. The shift is in a sense a rebranding effort, but it's more than cosmetic. Ditching a term like "tracing," which could have ominous connotations of surveillance, may go a long way in getting consumers to use the tools. Public perception of the project is especially important as tech companies contend with past privacy scandals that have cratered trust in the industry. 

Contact tracing has existed since long before Apple and Google decided to get involved. The practice is time-tested in the world of public health and has been used to track the spread of infectious diseases including tuberculosis, the measles and Ebola. (For COVID-19 other big names, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are already involved in digital contact tracing efforts.) But as Google and Apple try to get billions of people across the world to sign up for the tools, the meaning of the term could get lost or misinterpreted, said Tim Bajarin, president of the research firm Creative Strategies. 

"Words matter," Bajarin said. "That term is used in the medical community but doesn't necessarily translate to common vernacular." 

Apple and Google on Friday emphasized the importance of user trust. The two companies said they wanted people to understand that their devices weren't being used as location trackers, but instead were playing a part in a larger public health effort. To better educate people, the companies released a list of frequently asked questions aimed at consumers. It explains the basics of the project, like how the tools work, if people can turn them off, and where the data is stored. 

'Poor record on privacy'

The tech industry is already in the doghouse over data privacy. Google is often criticized for its business model, which relies on user data collected through its search engine, maps and other services to let advertisers target specific audiences with their messages. The search giant has also been accused of being less than forthright with its location data permissions, collecting the information when people thought they'd turned the setting off

Watch this: Contact tracing explained: How apps can slow the coronavirus

Apple has a much sturdier reputation on privacy but has also been criticized for how it treats user data. For example, last year Apple, Google and Amazon all drew blowback after they admitted they were sharing queries from their respective voice assistants with third-party contractors, to help improve their respective natural language software efforts. The companies responded to the outcry by letting people delete their voice data.

All these companies have also said over the years that they take privacy concerns seriously and that their data-related features are intended to improve the usefulness of products for consumers.

The contact tracing project has prompted scrutiny from lawmakers, as well. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, said Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Apple CEO Tim Cook should be held personally responsible for user data collected through the tools. Hawley particularly slammed Google.

"Especially because of Google's poor record on privacy, I fear that your project could pave the way for something much more dire," the senator wrote in a letter to Pichai and Cook earlier this week. "If you seek to assure the public, make your stake in this project personal. Make a commitment that you and other executives will be personally liable if you stop protecting privacy, such as by granting advertising companies access to the interface once the pandemic is over." 

Hawley added, "Americans are right to be skeptical of this project." 

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