If only we had a reliable system for tracking the spread of the coronavirus, and future outbreaks … The two tech giants are collaborating on just that — and they insist it won’t compromise public privacy.
Since COVID-19 spread like wildfire across the globe, the need for some kind of contact-tracing system has been discussed at length — with complicated implications for public privacy. But on Friday, Apple and Google announced a joint project to develop just such a tracking system, “with user privacy and security central to the design.”
According to The Verge, the new system, which is laid out in a series of documents and white papers, will use short-range Bluetooth communications to establish a voluntary contact-tracing network, keeping extensive data on phones that have been in close proximity with each other. Official apps from public health authorities will have access to this data, and users who download the apps can report if they’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19. The system will also alert users to whether they were in close contact with an infected person.
In May, both companies will release APIs (application program interfaces) that enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. These official apps will be available for users to download via their respective app stores.
Then, in the coming months, Apple and Google will work to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact-tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms. This will be 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.
With governments around the world likely to develop systems of their own aimed at tracking the virus, with much less consideration for privacy rights, Apple and Google's effort seems to be a more conscious effort to provide the much-needed data; while keeping user privacy, transparency and consent front and center during development. The companies say they’re looking to collaborate with interested stakeholders to build the functionality, and will openly publish information about the work for others to analyze.
"This is a very unprecedented situation for the world," said one of the joint project's spokespeople in a phone call with WIRED. "As platform companies we’ve both been thinking hard about what we can do to help get people back to normal life and back to work effectively. We think in bringing the two platforms together we can solve digital contact tracing at scale in partnership with public health authorities and do it in a privacy-preserving way."
In its announcement about the collaboration, Apple said: “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. 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.”