Apple and Google partner for COVID-19 ‘contact tracing’ tech

The news is full of people coming together to combat the spread of COVID-19 (while practicing social distancing), and today Apple and Google announced an unlikely partnership. According to a joint statement by Apple and Google, the two tech giants are working together on compatible “contact tracing” technology for both iOS and Android that would help their users determine if they’ve been in contact with someone with COVID-19. 

Details are vague, but the press release suggests the technology gives app developers tools to determine whether iOS and Android users have recently been near someone with COVID-19. It’s opt-in only, so the technology will only mark you as someone who has COVID-19 if you voluntarily report it to apps associated with health agencies that are working with Apple and Google. 

It’ll be a few months before we see it in its full form. In May, Apple and Google will release APIs (application programming interfaces) to allow contact tracing across iOS and Android devices, which will be made available to the app developers for public health agencies. Which means users will have to download trusted compatible apps. But “in the coming months,” Apple and Google will roll out a Bluetooth-based version of the service “into the underlying platforms”—in other words, iOS and Android themselves (or, possibly, Google Play Services). At this point, the service would also be used by more apps and government health authorities. 

In their statement, Apple and Google take care to say that they’re keeping users’ privacy and security in mind. That’s likely part of the reason why the service is rooted in Bluetooth technology, which is less accurate than other location-tracking methods.

“Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders,” the statement said. “We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyze.”

Beyond that, details remain scant. Developers can read over draft technical documentation, but that’s about all for now. Considering that this is one of the more robust efforts from technology companies to assist with the novel coronavirus pandemic, we expect to hear much more about this cooperative effort in the coming months. 

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