The Google-Apple contact-tracing API may mark the beginning of a species-level, biomechanical immune system

Peter Nixey
9 min readApr 12, 2020

Today saw Apple and Google announce a joint partnership to build contact-tracing into the core of their smartphones.

This technology works by quietly logging any other phones (aka people) which you’ve been in the vicinity of. In the event that you discover that you’re infected with Covid-19 you can (with the dual-confirmation of an official healthworker) update your status into the system. The system will automatically reach out to inform anyone who’s crossed your path in the past week or two to tell them that they they are at risk of developing Covid-19 and need to lay low. And it’ll do that without ever revealing who you are so there’s no risk of humiliation or retaliation.

This may seem innocuous but I believe is the kernal of something momentous. If it is built out correctly, what Google and Apple have announced today has the potential to become one of the single, greatest life-saving inventions in human healthcare. It could be the beginning of a species-level, biomechanical immune system. And the role it will play in that immune system is the same one that antibodies play in ours.

Our antibodies exist to flag and indentify bad stuff that the white blood cells then roll in and destroy. You can think of antibodies a bit like soldiers whose job it is to sneak over the hill and point a laser target onto an enemy tank. Antibodies finds the enemy, mark it out out for destruction and call in an airstrike from the white blood cells.

This surgical, laser-guided protection system means that we fight off most day-to-day issues without the rest of the body ever even realising they were a thing. We can still be overrun but generally speaking our immune system removes this stuff all day, every day.

That is the same thing that the technology announced today could do for new, emergent, infectious diseases. But instead of operating at a cellular level inside the body it would do it at a human-level across our species. If it were backed up a complementary white-blood cell system it could become an antibody system for humanity. As soon as we detect anyone infected with a disease this system could immediately light up everyone who had come into contact with them, flag them for isolation and therefore protect everyone else.

This is laser guided surgery. Meanwhile our current cure is chemotherapy. We’ve hooked our nation up up to a lockdown drip which will undoubtedly reduce the level of Covid in our system but will also wither our body in the process.

Let me illustrate how the new “Apploogle” system could work. Let’s rewind to 15th Feb 2020. On the 15th February there were 9 confirmed cases of Coronavirus in the UK. Those people would have each infected about 2.5 other people. Which means that there were at least 22 more people infected. But who were they? We didn’t and still don’t have the tests to tell. But what we can say that the only other people they could have infected were the ones who they came into contact with. If they didn’t meet someone, they didn’t infect them.

You may be thinking — that could be a lot of people. If you’re talking about a busy Londoner who’s using the tube, going to sports matches etc. then they may have already come into contact with 100 other people. And those people could have also come into contact with another 100 people. So let’s say that’s true. That’s 9 x 100 x 100 = 90,000 people. For various reasons I suspect the real number would be lower than this but let’s assume it’s 90k.

The technology announced today means that you could *immediately* identify that pool of 90,000 people at risk of infection and who need to be isolated. You could then isolate them and let everyone else go on living their lives. That’s a lot of people and a lot of disruption but it’s considerably better than the 66,000,000 people who are currently locked down today (in fact it’s less than 0.2% of them).

Today’s announcement hints at the possibility of identifying in near-to-realtime, the outer boundary of population that a virus may have infected. It flags individuals who may be infected so that we can isolate them from eveyone else. It is like an antibody system for a nation.

But… just as antibody’s don’t generally perform the actual destruction of foreign pathogens, neither will Apploogle’s system ensure that people actually lockdown and isolate themeslves. They are providing the laser-guidance as to who needs to isolate. We still need the airstrike.

And so while today’s announcement has focussed on the privacy aspects of the technology and while Apple and Google have hastened to add that they won’t hand their data over to the authorities, I just don’t think that’s going to be enough. In fact I think that not handing over some of this data may prove to be a dereliction of duty.

It’s one thing obeying a lockdown if the whole country is doing so. When there aren’t any dinners or parties to miss, when it’s what everyone expects of you and when everyone comes out every Thursday night to clap the NHS. It’s a different matter if you’re locking down on your own, while the rest of the world continues as normal.

Imagine going into lockdown if none of your friends were, if you were missing out on parties, on seeing loved ones, risking your job and moreover if you didn’t really think you were sick in the first place (and most people won’t be sick). Do you think that a text message from Apploogle is going to make you do that?

Lockdown is our fastest weapon against any disease spread and this technology allows us to switch from clumsy-chemotherapy to laser-guided surgery. But there’s no way around the fact that the surgery will still need a surgeon.

So I think that while this new Apploogle antibody system has great potential, it feels unlikely to have much impact without enforcement. It needs a way to incentivise people to stay home and to disincentivise them from leaving. It needs a carrot and a stick.

How it could work

  1. It has to inform authorities who needs to be isolated so that the isolation can be enforced and policed
  2. I suspect that there would need to be enforced tracking of people in lockdown. Maybe this could be done via tracking people’s phones, maybe it’s as extreme as ankle-bracelets. It will only be temporary but it has to be decisive. It will be much harder to lock people down when nobody else is doing so
  3. The lockdown has to be based on the (independent) data from Apploogle. It can’t be a license for arbitrary house-arrest. It should be illegal to lock someone down for longer than the agreed incubation/infectiousness period.
  4. In return for their lockdown, people should immediately receive a generous daily payment. They’re taking a hit for the nation — let’s say you pay each person £400/day. That’s a big carrot and a big incentive to stay home. At 90,000 people that would cost £36M/day and preserve the economy. Our current lockdown costs £2.4Bn/day and is destroying the economy.
  5. The use of this system in any given area should be publicly visible and independently vetted. It should be possible to see that track-and-trace is active (for instance) in the London region. This forces the authorities to explain why it is active.
  6. Access to any of the track-and-trace data should only be granted with a temporary government order. So on the emergence of a disease like Covid-19, the government issues a 6-month Track-and-Trace Order. Kind of like a stripped-down marshall law but for infectious disease.
  7. The rules of the system have to be enshrined and protected so that a government cannot force it to be repurposed for nefarious tracking. Given that we already have rules that protect the government from mis-using this data (see below) that feels perfectly plausible to me

One of the concerns people will have is around Google and Apple having access to the sensitive data involved. I’m not in the slightest bit worried about this — they already have access to pretty much all of this data. They have constant access to your location, your use of the phone and to every piece of unencrypted data (which is most of it) on your phone so very little has changed.

The question of privacy

The elephant in the room is privacy. Are we prepared to trade this type of privacy in order to protect ourselves. We know that once you give governments access to data they seldom give it back again.

We know these things to be true but we also know that much of today’s social fabric already depends on carefully designed privacy trade-offs. Our cars have number plates on them that allow us to be tracked for rule-breaking or criminal activity. Our banks require several layers of KYC before granting us accounts, crossing over borders requires passports. In many places in the world buying guns, weaponry and even certain types of chemicals requires licences and identity checks.

We have learned that sometimes it makes sense to purchase safety using some of our privacy. And we have learned how to craft those trades so as to minimise the amount of privacy we spend.

And so I think we may need to consider whether we are willing to make the same transaction here. We can have the privacy to be sick and to infect without recrimination or have the freedom to live our lives free from infection (or at least free from being locked-down en-masse). But in a pandemic can we realistically have both?

And let’s be clear what privacy trade-off is being suggested. This isn’t a suggestion that the government gets constant access to your location. This is not a way of tracking dissidents. What I am suggesting is that during a Track-and-Trace-Order, the government would be informed if you were in an at-risk situation and needed to be isolated. And it would only receive that information. You would be invisible to the government before coming into contact with someone who was infected and you would be invisible again to them after the pre-agreed infectiousness/isolation period had expired.

And is this so much worse than jury service? Every year around 180,000 people in the UK are called up for an average of 10 days to jury service. And they’re paid almost nothing for it. It’s done on a random lottery.

What we are talking about here is a platform that would likely trigger the isolation of groups of maybe 100,000 people for two to three weeks at a time. After that time, all of those people would immediately become invisible again. And this would only happen once every 5–20 years.

Privacy is a delicate subject but I think we’ve made good trade-offs in the past. I wouldn’t give up car number-plates for more privacy, I woudn’t give up banking-KYC for more privacy and I wouldn’t give up passports for more privacy. So it stands to reason that there might be other places it might make sense to make a similar trade.

It could be transformative. But only with teeth

Today’s announcement has the potential to be tremendously significant. Both for Covid-19 but also for us as a species. If Apploogle can walk the line of granting authorities exactly the right amount of information to enforce lockdown without so much as to permit abuse, I could forsee this small feature being those companys’ most lasting contribution to humanity. The number of lives that this could go on to save could eclipse the number saved by all other medical inventions.

If authorities choose both a carrot-and-stick approach to enforcement they could get extremely high compliance. This could potentially get most of us back to work many months before a vaccine appears. And when the next virus appears it could ringfence it in realtime and protect humanity from any of this clumsy lockdown in the first place.

For the first time ever we are in the position of wanting and needing Apple and Google to hand over more of our data over to the authorities than they might choose to. Because if they don’t give away sufficient information then this will be about as helpful as a lonely soldier lying on a hill pointing a laser at a tank. This needs teeth to work.

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Peter Nixey

Founder of Copyin.com, developer, entrepreneur, YC Alum and occasional investor