Sunday, June 20, 2021

Apple and Google are partly to blame for Europe's problems with hypercontagious Delta variant, should stop putting privacy over human lives and public health

There's a host of issues with how Apple and Google abuse their mobile app distribution monopolies. The 30% "tax"--which actually peaks at 35.25% (plus Search Ads and developer fees)--gets most of the attention, but what those two companies are doing with respect to governmental contact-tracing apps is exacting an infinitely higher price in the form of human lives. Apple and Google are obstructing governmental efforts to combat COVID and have contributed to the rise of the Delta variant in the UK. That deadly and hypercontagious strain is now spreading to mainland Europe.

The Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, scientifically known as B.1.617.2, "has shown to be more contagious and more lethal both in South Asia and in the UK," University of Chicago infectious disease expert Dr. Anu Hazra told CBS. In fact, studies have shown it to be about twice as infectious as the original variant, or "wild type." Other viruses mutated into irrelevance: as they got more contagious, they also got less pernicious. SARS-CoV-2 might still do us that favor, but so far it hasn't. It gets worse and worse.

Those who have been vaccinated only once enjoy very limited protection against severe symptoms if they contract the Delta variant. In a few months from now, colder temperatures will exacerbate the situation. The threat of a major pan-European Delta wave--which has already occurred in India and in the UK--is real.

Apple and Google would not have to "do" anything. They'd just have to be more reasonable and allow governments to do their job. I know it sounds absurd that companies should allow governments something--not the other way round--but unfortunately it's an accurate portrayal of the situation: in April, Apple and Google rejected an update to the official contact-tracing app for England & Wales that would have made the app more effective.

Yesterday, the BBC explained why the Delta variant has been able to spread so quickly in the UK that it is now the dominant strain. In that article (scroll about half-way down) you can find a chart that shows how this happened over a period of only about two months. Total COVID infection numbers were down to about 2,000 in the UK by mid April. At that point, the British government relaxed restrictions. The most significant change was that restaurants and bars were allowed to reopen. In order to be able to warn people who were in such a place at the same time as people shortly thereafter diagnosed with COVID, the UK's contact-tracing app would have encouraged and enabled people to scan a QR code at the entrance of a restaurant or bar. Apple and Google, however, completely disallow even the voluntary (!) transmission of location information in contact-tracing apps. Theoretically, that feature could have been implemented in an app that would not have used the contact-tracing API, but that would have required people to install and use two apps for essentially the same purpose. That would not be an acceptable solution. Such apps heavily depend on a high usage rate or they can't fulfill their purpose at all.

Apple and Google didn't create the Delta variant; nature did, most likely in India, where it was first discovered. But Apple and Google are partly to blame for the problem. The point at which they rejected that important app update (shortly before April 12) is almost identical to when the Delta variant started to spread in the UK. In that BBC chart I just mentioned, you can see that the orange area starts just a little bit to the right of the "8 Apr" mark. At that point, the improved version of the contact-tracing app could already have been in use, if not for Apple and Google's unreasonable restrictions. A little later, the UK faced infection rates at a level with mainland Europe, despite being far ahead in terms of vaccination rates.

Just today, Reuters reported that the Delta variant accounts for more than 60% of COVID cases in the capital of Portugal.

On Thursday, the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy reported on two studies that look at this worrying development. The first of them notes "that young people are helping drive the exponential growth of COVID-19 cases in England." More specifically, "[y]oung people are behind the surge, with a 5-fold higher rate of COVID-19 test positivity among children 5 to 12 years (0.35% prevalence) and adults 18 to 24 (0.36% prevalence) than in those 65 or older." Young people are far more likely to go to restaurants, bars, clubs, and pubs. That's exactly where the venue check-in feature would have helped. The other study "describes reduced COVID-19 vaccine and antibody efficacy against the more transmissible variant." Reduced antibody efficacy means an increased risk of reinfection.

When you hear Apple and now also Google utter the word "privacy" (such as when Apple CEO Tim Cook in a recent interview said that climate change is one of the most important issues of this century, "as is privacy"), it's not just about brand reputation. Privacy comes in handy as a pretext for abusive conduct, such as Apple's ad tracking rules, which I'll talk about more on another occasion. For the moment, suffice it to say that only a minority of users would seriously have a problem with an ad network knowing whether and how often they play Candy Crush or Hay Day. There are some privacy fanatics out there who either don't understand or don't care to understand that Apple is interested in shifting app revenues to IAP (where it imposes its tax) and in regaining control over how users discover apps.

Stopping the spread of new and clearly dangerous COVID strains is a legitimate reason for location tracking. Furthermore, the UK's democracy is intact. Unless one is worried about a military coup, there's no reason to assume that the collected data would be used in any harmful ways.

Some degree of privacy is a basic human right, but life and health are undoubtedly more important. Even if a government required citizens to check in with a contact tracing app before entering a restaurant, that would be perfectly appropriate during a pandemic. The UK did not even want to go that far. Ultimately, kneecapped contact-tracing will result in more deaths, more mourning familiy members, more hospitalizations, and more partial lockdowns (which in turn take an economic toll). All of that just because of the "Grapple" tyranny over mobile devices.

Apple and Google need to get out of the way of effective contact-tracing. The UK, from which the Delta variant is spreading to mainland Europe, should immediately be enabled to publish its improved contact-tracing app. Other countries should add a location check-in feature to their apps in time for the colder season. Virus propagation is exponential, so whatever slows down the spread makes an important difference. The alternative is that many people will die or suffer irreversible damage to their health who would not be infected if contact-tracing was more effective.

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