An alliance of Apple and Google seemed like an improbable prospect in the past, but thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the two tech giants have teamed up to use smartphone technology that will alert people if they have recently come into contact with others found to be infected with coronavirus.
Apple and Google said they believed there has never been a more important moment for the two companies to work together to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems.
The partnership is targeting at least 3 billion people who use Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android smartphone systems. The two companies hope to help governments and health agencies with contact-tracing.
How the tech works
Their system will use a smartphone’s Bluetooth signals to determine with whom the owner has recently been in proximity for long enough to have established a contagion risk, the BBC reported.
“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,” Apple said in a statement.
Beginning May, Apple and Google will release APIs that allow contact tracing through third-party apps released by public health authorities. Users of both iOS and Android devices can download the official apps through their respective app stores, the QZ website reported.
So, for example, if a person has been in close proximity to someone who later tests positive for the virus, the former would receive a message informing them of this. Users will have the option of opting in to Bluetooth tracing when they download COVID-19 contact-tracing apps.
The Wired website explained that a user’s phone would then constantly ping out Bluetooth signals to others nearby while also listening for communications from nearby phones.
The two companies hope that in the coming months they can eliminate the contact-tracing apps and instead 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,” Apple said.
Contact-tracing apps have been used in China, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. The QZ website reported that in Europe, a group of scientists and experts from the tech industry is working on a framework for contact-tracing apps that will protect privacy.
Apple and Google address privacy concerns
Obviously, privacy concerns come with using such a system.
Apple and Google insisted that privacy, transparency, and consent are of “utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders.” The two companies said they will openly publish information about their work for others to analyze.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is worried about the use of phone tracking data in contact-tracing, warning that the “potential for invasions of privacy, abuse, and stigmatization is enormous. Any uses of such data should be temporary, restricted to public health agencies and purposes, and should make the greatest possible use of available techniques that allow for privacy and anonymity to be protected, even as the data is used.
On the Apple and Google initiative, the ACLU said: “To their credit, Apple and Google have announced an approach that appears to mitigate the worst privacy and centralization risks, but there is still room for improvement. We will remain vigilant moving forward to make sure any contract tracing app remains voluntary and decentralized, and used only for public health purposes and only for the duration of this pandemic.”
President Donald Trump said his administration needed time to consider the development.
“It’s very interesting, but a lot of people worry about it in terms of a person’s freedom. We’re going to take… a very strong look at it, and we’ll let you know pretty soon,” the BBC reported.
The European Data Protection Supervisor, Wojtek Wiewiorowski was optimistic that the initiative ticked all the privacy boxes. In a series of tweets, Wiewiorowski said they welcomed Apple and Google’s joint initiative to help accelerate the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. EDPS said “ensuring interoperability between operating systems can be a necessary step towards deploying technology solutions to serve humankind in this time of history.”
“The initiative will require further assessment, however, after a quick look it seems to tick the right boxes as regards user choice, data protection by design and pan-European interoperability. Respect of fundamental rights is key and we will be monitoring the developments,” Wiewiorowski said.
Apple and Google have both invested heavily in healthcare over the past few years.
Last year, Google Maps pioneered a new feature showing users the nearest drug disposal location, a stunning development showcasing how technology can help solve healthcare’s most pressing problems.
The University of Michigan launched a study to discover whether data collected on Apple Watch, combined with other health information, can provide insight into health and wellness, and predict whether an individual will develop a common disease.