Apple, Google Work Together On ‘Private’ Coronavirus Tracing Tech

Apple and Google are jointly developing technology that could assist governments in tracking the spread of of Covid-19 through the use of the Bluetooth technology built into smartphones.

The technology, which is planned to be deployed on an anonymised, opt-in basis, could eventually help enable authorities to phase out the lockdowns that have been imposed across much of the world due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Apple and Google said their technology would first be made available to the developers of third-party contact tracing apps by mid-May, before being rolled out directly into Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android mobile operating systems, making separate apps unecessary.

The companies propose using smartphones’ Bluetooth signals to determine which other devices a user has been in contact with long enough to have put them at risk of exposure to the virus.

Image credit: Centres for Disease Control and Prevention

Private alert

If a user on that list of contacts then tests positive for Covid-19, the original user would be alerted and could then voluntarily get themselves tested or go into quarantine.

The technology does not record personal information, and no GPS location data is involved.

The scheme involves storing identification numbers on external servers, but Apple and Google said these are anonymised and could not be linked to a specific individual.

In addition, the contact-matching process takes place on devices themselves, rather than remotely, meaning the technology can alert users to the possibility of exposure without anyone else being notified.

“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 companies stated.

“We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyse.”

The companies released technical details of the cryptographic specifications they plan to use, as well as the role Bluetooth plays in the scheme.

“Contact tracing makes it possible to combat the spread of the Covid-19 virus by alerting participants of possible exposure to someone who they have recently been in contact with, and who has subsequently been positively diagnosed as having the virus,” the companies said in the documents.

The US government backed the plans at a press conference on Friday.

Interoperability

Countries including Israel, Poland, Singapore and South Korea are already using mobile phone data to trace those who may have been exposed to the coronavirus, as authorities look for a way to ease restrictions while controlling any possible subsequent waves of infection.

But researchers say strong privacy safeguards are needed to convince users in Western countries to adopt tracing tools.

Google and Apple said they plan to release an application programming interface (API) by mid-May that would allow developers to integrate their technology into existing tools.

This would make the apps being developed in different parts of the world interoperable, enabling them to work if the user travels internationally.

Once the technology is built directly into phones’ operating systems, Apple and Google said users would still be able to switch it on and off.  The built-in technology would be able to interact with third-party apps.

A built-in solution would be “more robust” than third-party apps, while reducing power consumption, the two companies said.

The companies would be able to disable the technology on a regional basis after the pandemic ends.

A number of contact tracing technologies are under development across Europe and the US.

Three US local governments last week became the first to adopt a Bluetooth-based app being developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called Private Kit, with a further 17 state and municipal governments considering the tech, MIT said.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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