Apple and Google on Friday announced a joint effort to embed technology into their smartphone operating systems that could detect if you’ve come into close contact with an individual who has contracted the coronavirus. The “contact tracing” project, the tech giants said, is being designed with user privacy and security at the forefront.
It’s a rare collaboration between two of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies, and it could be a potentially major development in helping slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide.
On the other hand, the Apple/Google contact tracing initiative has its limits: It’s an entirely voluntary system, so if someone hasn’t opted in — and notified a government health authority that they have tested positive for the coronavirus — they wouldn’t be tracked by the system. Meanwhile, it could be abused by mischief-makers who might falsely report that they have COVID-19.
The joint effort will enable the use of the short-range Bluetooth wireless specification to let Android and iOS phones communicate with each other to share information about COVID-19 infections.
Apple and Google said the contact tracing features will only be available to “public health authorities for COVID-19” but they did not specify which organizations they plan to allow to use it.
The system is designed to ensure complete user anonymity. It doesn’t collect personally identifiable information or user location data; instead, an iOS or Android device would keep a list of the Bluetooth data for phones you’ve been in contact with.
When someone voluntarily submits a positive COVID-19 diagnosis to an app from a “health authority,” their Bluetooth beacon IDs from the previous 14 days are uploaded to a central cloud. (People who test positive are not identified to other users, Google or Apple, the companies say.) The phones of others who have opted-in to the same app periodically check the database, and they will receive a notification if their phone had Bluetooth contact with the device of anyone who reporting testing positive.
The project has two phases: In May, both companies will release application programming interfaces (APIs) that enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities, which will be available to download via their respective app stores.
In the second phase, over the next several months, Apple and Google said they will work “to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform” by building the functionality into the underlying operating systems.
“All of us at Apple and Google believe there has never been a more important moment to work together to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems,” the companies said in a joint statement. “Through close cooperation and collaboration with developers, governments and public health providers, we hope to harness the power of technology to help countries around the world slow the spread of COVID-19 and accelerate the return of everyday life.”
In a post on Twitter about the collaboration, Apple CEO Tim Cook emphasized that “Contact tracing can help slow the spread of COVID-19 and can be done without compromising user privacy.”
Contact tracing can help slow the spread of COVID-19 and can be done without compromising user privacy. We’re working with @sundarpichai & @Google to help health officials harness Bluetooth technology in a way that also respects transparency & consent. https://t.co/94XlbmaGZV
— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) April 10, 2020
Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichar, in a coordinated tweet, also said the approach is “designed with strong controls and protections for user privacy.”
To help public health officials slow the spread of #COVID19, Google & @Apple are working on a contact tracing approach designed with strong controls and protections for user privacy. @tim_cook and I are committed to working together on these efforts.https://t.co/T0j88YBcFu
— Sundar Pichai (@sundarpichai) April 10, 2020
Under their partnership, Google and Apple publicly released draft technical documentation including Bluetooth and cryptography specifications and framework documentation, available here: apple.com/covid19/contacttracing.