NEWS: 04.13.20- In a joint statement issued last Friday, rival tech companies Apple and Google announced a partnership in the spirit of collaboration to enable the use of Bluetooth-based contact tracing technology, with user privacy and security central to the design, in order to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus (also known as COVID-19).
The joint statement on April 10 from the Cupertino and Mountain View, California-based companies came several weeks after an open letter — written before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic on March 11 by the World Health Organization (WHO) — was published online by technologists, epidemiologists, and medical professionals who wrote that they believed that Silicon Valley could be doing more to help mitigate the outbreak of the virus on a larger scale and outlined more than a dozen steps that the tech sector should be taking. Specifically, the group called on Apple and Google to work together to support contact tracing technology within each company’s respective mobile operating systems, iOS and Android.
“Across the world, governments and health authorities are working together to find solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic, to protect people and get society back up and running,” said Apple and Google in the joint statement
” Software developers are contributing by crafting technical tools to help combat the virus and save lives. … 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.”
According to the two tech companies, a number of leading public health authorities, universities, and non-governmental organizations around the world have been doing important work to develop opt-in contact tracing technologies. In order to assist with enabling this cause, Apple and Google will be launching a comprehensive solution that includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and system-level technology in each company’s mobile operating systems.
Due to the urgent need, Apple and Google plan to implement this solution in two steps.
First, in May, both companies will release APIs that enable interoperability between iOS and Android devices using apps from public health authorities (these official apps will be available for users to download via the App Store and Google Play). Second, 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 companies’ mobile operating systems (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).
After the joint statement was issued, that same day, Wired magazine published a feature which detailed how Apple and Google are enabling COVID-19 contact tracing: in essence, the two tech companies are providing the ingredients, APIs and Bluetooth-based technology, to make it possible for a system of previously proposed apps to be created which track coronavirus infections via smartphones that can work on both the iOS and Android platforms.
These apps from public health agencies and organizations, then, can tap into the APIs created by Apple and Google and use a smartphone’s Bluetooth radio frequency — which have a range of approximately 30 feet — to keep track of whether a person has come into contact with someone who later turns out to have been infected with COVID-19, and, once alerted, that user can then self-isolate or get tested themselves.
Wired magazine broke it down and explained in further detail how it works:
- users would opt in to a Bluetooth-based proximity detection scheme when they download a contact tracing app
- smartphones then constantly would ping out Bluetooth signals to others close by while also listening for communications from nearby devices
- if two smartphones spend more than a few minutes within range of one another, they each would record contact with the other smartphone, exchanging unique, rotating identifier beacon numbers that are based on keys stored on each device
- public health app developers would be able to tune both the proximity and the amount of time necessary to qualify as a contact based on current information about how COVID-19 spreads
- if a user is later diagnosed with COVID-19, they would alert their app with a tap which then would upload their last two weeks of keys to a server, which then would generate their recent beacon numbers and send them out to other smartphones in the system
- if someone else’s smartphone finds that one of these beacon numbers matches one stored on their own phone, they would be notified that they have been in contact with a potentially infected person and given information about how to help prevent further spread
The advantage of that system — in terms of privacy — is, according to the publication, that it doesn’t depend on collecting location data (e.g., as opposed to the use of GPS-based tracking apps).
“This is a very unprecedented situation for the world,” said one of the joint project’s spokespersons for Apple and Google in a phone call with WIRED magazine.
“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.”
Privacy, consent, and transparency are of utmost importance according to Apple and Google, and, per their joint statement, both companies are looking forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders.
According to NBC News, in a report about the rare collaboration between the two rival tech companies which was published on the day the joint statement was issued, privacy advocates have raised alarms that contact tracing apps on smartphones could become part of a permanent surveillance structure, however, Apple and Google have emphasized that would not be the case with anything they deploy. The network news outlet reported that versions of coronavirus tracking apps already exist in China, Singapore, Israel and elsewhere, but efforts have been slower in the United States and Europe because of concerns about privacy.
An individual who has been researching the use of Bluetooth technology to slow the spread of the coronavirus — and praised Apple and Google, as a result, for their efforts — was Michael Veale, assistant professor at the University College London, , who was interviewed by NBC News and told the network news outlet that the two tech companies’ system seems designed to ensure that personal information doesn’t end up on government servers.
“Governments were hoping that Apple and Google would just let them have access to the Bluetooth sensor. Apple is saying we don’t need to do that to have a contact tracing system and is forcing them to adopt a system that the scientists and privacy engineers say is much less capable of abuse,” said Veale, speaking to NBC News.
Wired magazine reported that several projects — including those led by developers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford, and the governments of Singapore and Germany — have already proposed, and, in some cases, implemented similar Bluetooth-based contact tracing systems. (Apple and Google declined to tell the publication which specific groups or government agencies they have been working with).
NBC News reported that outside experts had been pleading with the two tech companies to join forces in just such an effort because of their unique position controlling the mobile operating systems for the vast majority of the smartphones used in the United States and Europe.
On the collaboration and partnership between the two tech companies, Apple and Google — per their joint statement — had this to say:
“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.”
A Note from the Author: the image featured herein was procured from and courtesy of NBC News via the same article cited within as source material for this story.