Google and Apple are joining hands to build a privacy-preserving COVID-19 tracking system that will be available, in the coming days, for all Android and iOS devices. Contact tracing and user privacy are the two keywords here. Unlike more conventional COVID-19 tracking measures, including apps like the Government of India’s recently launched Aarogya Setu, Apple and Google are focusing on a completely ‘anonymous’ approach, one that involves Bluetooth rather than location or GPS.
“Google and Apple are announcing a joint effort to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design,” Google and Apple said in a joint statement announcing the new partnership. “Given the urgent need, the plan is to implement this solution in two steps while maintaining strong protections around 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
Google and Apple’s COVID-19 contact tracing system: Here’s how it will work
Google and Apple’s COVID-19 tracking system will use short-range Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) transmissions and apps approved by public health authorities (possibly in the US to begin with) to identify potential Coronavirus hotspots in their near vicinity, in addition to allowing infected individuals to let others know they’re carriers of the virus. The system will basically have the same bells and whistles as other COVID-19 tracking systems but with a much greater emphasis on user privacy because it will be based on Bluetooth technology and not GPS. Although, just because the tech is based on an alternate technology, it does not guarantee a full-proof solution to users’ privacy woes. This is something even Google and Apple are possibly aware of.
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
Even though some user data will be shared with the approved apps, to make all this possible, Google and Apple’s COVID-19 tracking system will share this information in the form of an anonymous key that is said to be reset every fifteen minutes, thereby adding an extra layer of security for users. Like other COVID-19 tracking apps, Google and Apple’s system will also keep data on the device at all times, sharing it with the apps only in case when users report being exposed. Again, all of this will be opt-in which means users will be free to disclose their status with the given apps at their own discretion.
Apple and Google will begin with introducing joint application programming interfaces or APIs for the approved apps — this is to ensure interoperability between iOS and Android devices — in May. Both the companies will then work towards implementing COVID-19 tracking within their respective operating systems, in the coming months, so more and more apps will be able to make use of it. “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.”
Just to be clear, Google and Apple are not building any COVID-19 tracking app. They are merely giving other app developers and reputable health organizations tools that will allow them to bring contact tracing technology to smartphones, to help users curb the spread of the deadly Novel Coronavirus in the future.