Apple and Google have decided to get their hands on this Coronavirus issue. The two big companies have just announced the creation of a monitoring system that will be integrated into iOS and Android and that seeks to make available to the health authorities, a series of technological tools that allow the development of applications to try to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Specifically, Google and Apple have decided to standardize a system based on Bluetooth LE so that mobile devices can serve as trackers of possible infections. With this standard, both companies will allow the easy development of applications for Android and iOS that, depending on the people we have approached, can alert us if any of them has tested positive for coronavirus so that we can take appropriate action. This is what we know about the new project that will start next May.
How will the system developed by Apple and Google work?
According to Google and Apple, the system will work as follows:
1. When two people are physically close, their phones will exchange “anonymous” location codes via Bluetooth, which will also change from time to time.
2. Each phone will keep two lists: one with its own codes sent to other phones of people nearby and another with the codes received by people nearby.
3. In the event that a person tests positive for COVID-19 and indicates this in an official application of a health organisation, the user’s own location codes will automatically be uploaded to the cloud, i.e. those that the infected user’s mobile phone has been sharing for the last 14 days.
4. Periodically, all mobile phones download the location codes of users who have tested positive for COVID-19 from the cloud and compare them with the location codes received from other people stored in their phones.
5. If there is a match between the third party codes you have stored in your mobile, i.e. those shared by the people you have crossed paths with in the last few days, and one of those who tested positive for COVID-19, an app could send you an alert message telling you that you have been near an infected person, so that you can receive information about what to do next.
A common standard for iOS and Android in several stages
The joint statement of the two companies shows the intention to launch this project as soon as possible, joining efforts “together with governments and health authorities”. The first step of this initiative will be to create an API for both iOS and Android that allows different applications to access these trace tools in a secure and native way. This API will be available in May and the different tracking applications will be able to make use of this system.
This API will be common to both operating systems so that they can operate centrally. That is, tracking will be detected regardless of whether a user has an iPhone or an Android mobile.
The second step will be to create a system-wide solution. A contact tracking platform based on Bluetooth connections. A system that has already been implemented in solutions such as Singapore’s TraceTogether application. Because it will be integrated into the operating system itself, all applications that take advantage of this system will be able to connect to each other regardless of the government that uses them.
The tracking system will record which people have been contacted, but “this information will never leave the phone. People who test positive will not be identified by other users, neither by Google nor Apple“, both companies explain. The tracking data will only be used to track who has been contacted and will only be used by health authorities.
What kind of data will this tracking system obtain
One of the debates that has arisen from these types of applications is about privacy. Google and Apple are aware of the relevance of this project and how many users might feel concerned about being tracked in their daily activities.
In response, the two companies explain that “privacy, transparency and consent are paramount in this effort, and we hope to build this functionality in consultation with stakeholders. We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyze“. A position that can be seen in the tweets of Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, CEOs of Apple and Alphabet respectively, where the word ‘privacy’ is always present.
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
To help public health officials slow the spread of #COVID19, Google & @Apple are working on a contact tracing approach designed with strong controls and protections for user privacy. @tim_cook and I are committed to working together on these efforts.https://t.co/T0j88YBcFu
— Sundar Pichai (@sundarpichai) April 10, 2020
As stated in one of the technical documents, the Bluetooth Contact Tracking Protocol specification does not require knowledge of your location and any use of it is completely optional. The ‘rolling proximity identifiers‘ will change on average every 15 minutes, so “it is unlikely that the user’s location can be tracked via Bluetooth over time”.
In case the user has been diagnosed positive by the COVID-19, the user agrees to share the ‘Diagnostic Key’ with the server. A process where the user will receive information transparently at all times, as explained by Google and Apple.
The truth is that this is a relatively new system. Apple and Google are still working on it and it is not an infallible mechanism. Despite the fact that it is a tool integrated into operating systems, users must either update their smartphones or install applications from the Play Store or the App Store. A step that will require the intervention and advice of users.
In short, if there is a worldwide interest to collaborate with this kind of initiatives, then undoubtedly this initiative of Apple and Google will be a tool to be taken into account in the fight against the so far deadly Coronavirus.