Apple and Google’s Coronavirus Feature Might Be an Offer You Can’t Refuse

The tech giants promise it will be opt-in. Will your employer, school, or church agree?

Will Oremus
Published in
7 min readApr 17, 2020


Photo: Jared Siskin/Getty Images

This story is part of a series on the possible impacts of Apple and Google’s contact tracing technology. You can read the others here.

When society begins to reopen, contact tracing will be a new fact of life. People who test positive for Covid-19 will be asked to trace their recent interactions with others, who will in turn be asked to get tested or stay home.

While contact tracing has traditionally been done via human interviews, Apple and Google last week announced a system that will use people’s smartphones to determine whether they’ve recently come within close range of anyone who’s tested positive for Covid-19. To protect users’ privacy, the system won’t track their geographic location or even their identity. And to protect civil liberties, the companies are adamant that the system will be opt-in — that is, you won’t have to use it unless you want to. The companies on Monday told reporters that government health authorities will be the only ones allowed to build apps using the technology, and they won’t be allowed to make those apps mandatory.

That system, if it works, promises to strike a real compromise between privacy and public health benefits. While no tracking system is foolproof, the companies appear to have taken great care to minimize the risk of exposing people’s sensitive information or becoming party to a surveillance state.

Yet there’s a paradox at the heart of opt-in contact tracing, as Apple and Google have conceived it. If it’s truly voluntary, then it may be hard to convince large swaths of the population to enable it: In Singapore, an app called TraceTogether that uses similar technology has been adopted by about 17% of that country’s population. And the fewer people who enable it, the less useful it becomes in facilitating the reopening of society.

Apple and Google are hoping to beat that number in the United States and other countries by eventually building basic tracing functionality into the operating system, so that at least some contact tracing features can work even if people don’t download an app…