An Apple-Google effort to stop COVID-19 by creating a warning system through people’s smartphones is going to arrive via future updates in iOS and Android.
Last Friday, the two companies announced the voluntary “contact tracing” system, which is designed to alert people about their potential exposure to the virus. The system will do this by tapping everyone’s smartphones to track who they’ve come in close contact to. In the event you do test positive for COVID-19, you can send a warning to everyone you’ve met in the past 14 days.
The proposed technology is designed to be opt-in with its scope limited to public health purposes, and nothing more. Nevertheless, the system is raising concerns about potential abuse and surveillance. So on Monday, Apple and Google held a press briefing on the technology, according to TechCrunch.
Among the takeaways from the briefing is that Apple will roll out the contact tracing system via an update in iOS. Google, on the other hand, will be delivering it on Android over a Google Play Services update, enabling older Android devices to activate the technology. As a result, you won’t need to download a new app if you want to try out the contact tracing system. You’ll just have to click to opt in.
How the system works.
Expect the updates to arrive in the coming months. In the meantime, Apple and Google are giving public health authorities access to the technology in mid-May. This will arrive via an API, so that health groups can begin incorporating the system into their own contact tracing apps, which will be made available over the iOS App Store and Google Play.
Both Apple and Google stress that only public health organizations will be able to access the API, and no one else. But as TechCrunch notes, it’s not exactly clear whether this means federal or state governments will be able to access the data as well.
To protect your privacy, the system tries to avoid location tracking and instead relies on your phone’s Bluetooth connectivity to transmit a digital identifier to neighboring smartphones of the people you’re meeting with. In this way, your phone can create a list of all the devices it’s come in close proximity to.
How it can warn you about potential exposure.
However, your phone’s identifier never remains static. It will actually change every 15 minutes, scrambling traces of your movements.
The data from the contact-tracing system will also solely reside on your phone. This will only change if you’ve tested positive for COVID-19 and choose to upload the information to servers, which can begin notifying everyone you recently met about their exposure to the virus.
But what about the risk of people submitting false tests? According to TechCrunch, the companies say they’re working with health authorities to validate a person’s COVID-19 test is legit before a warning is sent out to affected users.
Nevertheless, some critics are worried the upcoming contact tracing system will be marred with errors. Ross Anderson, a University of Cambridge professor in computer science, points out Bluetooth can transmit through walls, and detect other smartphones over ten feet way.
“How will things work with an orderly supermarket queue, where law-abiding people stand patiently six feet apart,” he wrote in a blog post.
The other challenge is the public’s distrust in technology, which could dissuade users from trying out the contact-tracing system. “If the app’s voluntary, nobody has an incentive to use it, except tinkerers and people who religiously comply with whatever the government asks,” Anderson added. “If uptake remains at 10 to 15 percent, as in Singapore, it won’t be much use and we’ll need to hire more contact tracers instead.”