The Signal: Searches for “contact tracing” have skyrocketed as countries use smartphone data to curb the spread of COVID-19. Some view it as the key to lifting quarantines; others, as a threat to personal privacy. We wanted to explore this landscape from a new angle: How will this technology impact businesses and their owners?

Traditional contact tracing involves identifying everyone exposed to an infected patient, alerting them, and separating them from the rest of society before they can spread a disease further. It was crucial in identifying the true source of London’s cholera outbreak in the mid-1800s, and has played a role in addressing measles, HIV, SARS, H1N1, Ebola, and other health crises.

Contact tracing typically requires extensive patient interviews, and is labor intensive and imprecise. Google and Apple have teamed up to modernize the practice by enabling bluetooth connections to track when 2 phones are near one another. This new functionality would allow health departments to create apps that could quickly identify and alert anyone who had been close to an infected patient within the last few weeks. While they’re limiting access to the API to public health authorities in each country, together Google and Apple represent 99% of all smartphone sales, making their reach effectively global.

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