Apple and Google on Friday announced a joint effort to use Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus, “with user privacy and security central to the design.”
Apple assures users that their privacy and security will be central to the design of the project, and participation will be opt-in. The Cupertino firm says privacy, transparency, and consent are “of the utmost importance of this effort.”
Since COVID-19 can be transmitted through close proximity to affected individuals, public health officials have identified contact tracing as a valuable tool to help contain its spread. A number of leading public health authorities, universities, and NGOs around the world have been doing important work to develop opt-in contact tracing technology. To further this cause, Apple and Google will be launching a comprehensive solution that includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing. Given the urgent need, the plan is to implement this solution in two steps while maintaining strong protections around user privacy.
Apple and Google will in May release APIs that provide interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. These apps will be available for download from the iOS App Store and Google Play.
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
The corporate duo will work to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms. 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. They will openly publish information about their work for others to analyze.
Initial details on the contact tracing technology are available on Apple’s new webpage for the feature, which has links to technical documentation on Bluetooth specifications, cryptography specifications, and the framework API.
TechCrunch reports on how the tracking procedures will work. A random, identifier that rotates every 15 minutes, will be assigned to a person’s phone, and it will be transmitted via Bluetooth to other nearby devices.
Here’s a quick example of how it would work (via TechCrunch):
- Two people happen to be near each other for a period of time, let’s say 10 minutes. Their phones exchange the anonymous identifiers (which change every 15 minutes).
- Later on, one of those people is diagnosed with COVID-19 and enters it into the system via a Public Health Authority app that has integrated the API.
- With an additional consent, the diagnosed user allows his anonymous identifiers for the last 14 days to be transmitted to the system.
- The person they came into contact with has a Public Health app on their phone that downloads the broadcast keys of positive tests and alerts them to a match.
- The app gives them more information on how to proceed from there.