Apple and Google are teaming up to create a smartphone-based system to let you know when you’ve come into contact with someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19.
This “contact tracing” technology promises to help health authorities track and contain the illness. For consumers, it’ll also serve as a warning system in the event a friend, acquaintance, or worker you met later tested positive for the virus. Your iPhone or Android handset will send you a message with official health information on what to do. But this will only occur if you’ve voluntarily opted into the contact tracing.
When the system will arrive remains unclear. For now, the plan is to release software APIs next month to enable Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems to easily talk to each other over apps from public health authorities. “These official apps will be available for users to download via their respective app stores,” the companies said without specifying the app names or release dates.
“Second, in the coming months, Apple and Google will work to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms,” the companies added. “This is a more robust solution than an API and would allow more individuals to participate, if they choose to opt in, as well as enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities.”
Whether the system will actually work or be marred by false positives is another matter. But the proposed solution tries to avoid invading people’s privacy by collecting and sifting through smartphone location data. Instead, Apple and Google want to tap the Bluetooth connectivity on everyone’s phones to determine those with whom you’ve been in close proximity.
How the system works, according to Google.
For example, if you meet a friend at a park, theoretically your phones will be close enough to exchange digital keys with each other over Bluetooth. Those keys can then be used to trace back everyone you met over a 14-day period. If you do come down with COVID-19, with your consent, you can upload the keys to the companies’ servers, allowing them to notify everyone you met about their exposure to the virus.
Recipients will then receive a message that omits your identity but says: “ALERT: You have recently been exposed to someone who has tested positive for Covid-19. Tap for more information.”
How you’ll be notified in the event you met someone who tests positive for COVID-19.
During the whole process, your name and personal information is never revealed, according to Apple and Google. Each key is also tied to anonymous identifiers, which should prevent the companies from learning the identities of people you’ve been meeting.
Although Apple and Google created the system to preserve people’s privacy, there may be some drawbacks with the approach. For instance, say the system does say you came into contact with a person infected with COVID-19. By omitting the person’s identity, you’re left to speculate about just how exposed you were to the illness.
The same system assumes enough people will opt into the contact tracing. The other problem is the lack of easily accessible COVID-19 testing across the US.
“No contact tracing app can be fully effective until there is widespread, free, and quick testing and equitable access to healthcare,” said Jennifer Granick, cybersecurity counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.
“At the same time, we must be realistic that such contact tracing methods are likely to exclude many vulnerable members of society who lack access to technology and are already being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic,” she added.