Apple and Google Join Forces to Track the Spread of Coronavirus
New contact tracing apps could alert users who have been exposed to Covid-19
Google and Apple announced a new partnership on Friday to develop solutions for tracking the spread of the coronavirus. The system will rely on Bluetooth technology in smartphones to alert people who may have been exposed to an infected individual, and it represents a rare bit of cooperation between the competing iOS and Android platforms.
The technology giants detailed their plans in two announcements (one from Apple, one from Google). In May, the two will introduce APIs for developers to create their own “contact tracing platforms” on smartphone apps. If you download such an app and cross paths with someone who later uploads a positive test result, you would receive a notification about potential exposure with information about what to do next.
Apple and Google say they will eventually update iOS and Android to contain the Bluetooth functionality without an additional app download. Both companies highlighted user privacy in their documentation about the contact tracing feature — it would require users to opt in, and any data shared would be anonymized.
“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 their 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.”
Contact tracing is used to map the contacts of someone diagnosed with an infectious disease. Seattle health authorities deployed this method to find their coronavirus Patient Zero, and San Francisco will tap more than 100 volunteers and government employees to interview and plot the movements of everyone testing positive for Covid-19.
A mobile version would follow similar protocols. But instead of relying on interviews to chart the paths of infected people, that crucial information would come from Bluetooth data.
According to draft outlines published by Apple and Google, anonymous tracing keys on people’s phones are broadcast every few minutes. These act like beacons that are logged by other nearby devices. (Six feet is considered “close contact” by health authorities.) If someone is diagnosed with Covid-19, they can submit that information to the app and upload 14 days of proximity data from their phone. People whose devices have exchanged keys with that person will then be alerted in a push notification.
To reiterate, the companies say this process doesn’t collect data that could be used to track someone. It’s also not mandatory — a person must download an app and voluntarily state if they’ve been infected.
However, there are several barriers that could limit the usefulness of mobile contact tracing.
As far as accuracy goes, Bluetooth connections are notoriously spotty; as the Washington Post pointed out, it’s unclear how consistently devices will link through car doors and walls.
The apps also rely on people knowing that they’re sick, and the United States is extremely short on coronavirus testing kits. Theoretically, users could also abuse the app and lie about an infection, a possibility that Signal creator Matthew Rosen (who goes by Moxie Marlinspike) raised in a Twitter thread Friday. Apple declined to state on the record how users will be prevented from submitting false information. Google did not immediately respond to OneZero’s request for comment.
Rosen also noted that the technology would require a large amount of data to be downloaded by users every week.
Adoption is another hurdle experienced by countries who’ve already implemented mobile contact tracing. In Singapore, 1 in 6 people opted into a similar program, but participation needed to be closer to three-quarters for the app to be effective.
“Despite our good contact tracing, for nearly half of these cases, we do not know where or from whom the person caught the virus,” Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, said of the effort.
And marginalized communities who have historically been oppressed by surveillance technology may understandably be wary of downloading such an app.
Privacy advocates have also cautioned against location-tracking in response to the pandemic. Many countries have already adopted new surveillance measures to track the spread of Covid-19.
In a paper published Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union outlined several concerns about using location tracking to fight the outbreak. “The potential for invasions of privacy, abuse, and stigmatization is enormous,” Jay Stanley and Jennifer Stisa Granick, two technology experts at the ACLU, wrote.
Meanwhile, Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Thursday that the agency is drafting a “very aggressive” contact tracing plan. Redfield told NPR that “people are looking at all the different modern technology that could be brought to bear to make contact tracing more efficient and effective.”
The partnership will expand on Silicon Valley’s tenuous alignment with government agencies. Public health officials will be developing the apps; it’s unclear how long that will take. A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has already begun a similar project.