Apple and Google team up on virus 'contact tracing' tool

The joint effort will use smartphone location technology to track and potentially contain the global COVID-19 outbreak

Google and Apple unveiled a joint initiative Friday to develop a coronavirus contact tracing technology that could potentially alert people when they have crossed paths with an infected person. The move, which brings together the largest mobile operating systems, would allow apps to be created enabling smartphones powered by Apple software and Google-backed Android OS to exchange information with a joint "opt in system" using Bluetooth wireless technology.

Additionally, the companies plan to release next month software interface technology to allow for interoperability - so that an alert would work regardless of the operating system.

"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 a joint statement, contending that "privacy, transparency, and consent" were top priorities in the initiative.

The rare collaboration between the two Silicon Valley companies, whose operating systems power 99% of the world’s smartphones, could accelerate usage of apps that aim to get potentially infected individuals into testing or quarantine more quickly and reliably than existing systems in much of the world. Such tracing will play a vital role in managing the virus once lockdown orders end, health experts say.

The planned technology also throws the weight of the tech leaders into a global conflict between privacy advocates who favor a decentralised system to trace contacts and governments in Europe and Asia pushing centralised approaches that have technical weaknesses and potentially let governments know with whom people associate.

“With Apple and Google, you get all the public health functions you need with a decentralised and privacy-friendly app,” said Michael Veale, University College London legal lecturer involved in European contact tracing system DP3T. Centralized solutions such as those proposed in Britain and Germany would no longer work under the new technology, he said.

For the app to be effective, however, the Silicon Valley system would require millions of people to opt in the system, trusting the technology companies’ safeguards, as well as smooth oversight by public health systems.

"No contact tracing app can be fully effective until there is widespread, free, and quick testing and equitable access to healthcare. These systems also can't be effective if people don't trust them," said Jennifer Granick of the American Civil Liberties Union in a statement.

"People will only trust these systems if they protect privacy, remain voluntary, and store data on an individual's device, not a centralized repository," she added.

More on this subject: Coronavirus

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