Apple and Google might be rivals in the world of smartphone software, but the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented announcement from both. In a first, the two companies are coming together to help public authorities with contact tracing of COVID-19 patients.
In a joint blog post announcement, the two companies wrote, “Software developers are contributing by crafting technical tools to help combat the virus and save lives. In this spirit of collaboration, Google and Apple are announcing a joint effort to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design.”
Both Apple and Google plan to launch what they call a “comprehensive solution” for COVID-19 tracing, which will use “application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology” to help track patients and their contacts. The two also plan to use Bluetooth technology, which is present in nearly all smartphones to help with contact tracing.
Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted, “Contact tracing can help slow the spread of COVID-19 and can be done without compromising user privacy. We’re working with Sundar Pichai and Google to help health officials harness Bluetooth technology in a way that also respects transparency & consent.”
Pichai also tweeted about the announcement saying, “ 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.”
But exactly how are Apple and Google planning to help governments and users trace COVID-19 cases across the world? We explain below.
What have Apple and Google announced?
The first step will be in May when both Apple and Google will release APIs to ensure some kind of interoperability between Android and iOS devices. The APIs will work across apps from public health authorities. For example in India, there is the Aarogya Setu app from the government, which can help with COVID-19 contact tracing. But right now, the Android app cannot speak to the iOS version of the app. With APIs being implemented at a software level, this could all change. The specifics of the API are not really clear. It is also not known which health agencies will use these APIs once they are rolled out.
The other big step that Apple and Google plan to implement is what they are calling as a “broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform”. This feature will be made part of both iOS and Android, and is being pitched as a “more robust solution than an API”. The reason: Bluetooth-level tracing allows more individuals to participate and given COVID-19 spreads very quickly and the rate of infection is high, a mass-based technology can help here.
So how will Bluetooth tracing work on Android and iOS phones?
Both Apple and Google have put out details on the Bluetooth technical specifications and how this technology will work with contact tracing. The technology will work on both Android and iOS.
First, the user will have to give explicit and clear permission that they are opting-in for this kind of contact tracing, according to the companies. Exactly how this permission will be taken is not clear, but it could be within the app they use.
If this is at the software level, pushing out the iOS update will be easier given most phones are on the latest version and Apple has tighter control over the ecosystem. But in the fragmented Android universe, it is not clear how this update will reach all smartphones.
In a graphic, the companies have explained how the Bluetooth bit will work. Say two people named A and B meet for a brief period. Their phones will then exchange identifier beacons via Bluetooth; these beacons are updated frequently. A few days later person B tests positive for COVID-19 and decides to enter that data into a public health authority app. With their consent, the phone will upload their broadcast beacon (the same which was shared with person A’s phone) from the last 14 days to the cloud.
Meanwhile, person A’s phone will continue to download the broadcast beacon keys of everyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 in their region. When a match is found with the B’s anonymous identifier beacons, person A is alerted that they have been in contact with a COVID-19 patient and a notification is sent to their phone alerting them on what to do next.
What about privacy here?
Both Google and Apple insist that in order for the Bluetooth tracing to work, a user will have to give explicit consent. It is likely that both will push out a software update across all Android and iOS devices to add this feature. Exactly when and how this will be done is still not clear.
The Bluetooth tracing will not “collect personally identifiable information or user location data”, according to the companies. The list of people you have been in contact with will not leave your phone.
Further, Google and Apple will not identify those who test positive. So you will not receive an alert saying person A is positive and you were in touch with them. The only alert you will receive is that you were in contact with someone who has been tested positive for COVID-19.
The patient too has to choose to confirm this information via an app, which has been designed by public health authorities to help with contact tracing for COVID-19 management. So if the COVID-19 patient is not actually using any such app and does not enter the data on their phone, the Bluetooth tracing won’t really work. The companies also say that kind of proximity identifiers obtained from other devices will be processed exclusively on the device and not on the cloud.
More technical details
Here’s a quick look at the technical details of the Bluetooth tracing, though these could be modified later on.
- First, there is a Tracing Key, which is generated once per device.
- Then, there’s a Daily Tracing Key, which is derived every 24 hours from the main Tracing Key. This is being done for privacy reasons.
- A Diagnosis Key is generated when a user tests positives for COVID-19 and this is based on a subset of Daily Tracing Keys.
There’s also a Rolling Proximity Identifier which changes every 15 minutes to prevent any kind of wireless tracking of the device. This is derived from the Daily Tracing Key, and sent in the Bluetooth advertisements or the Bluetooth messages to other mobile devices.
Here’s a quick Coronavirus guide from Express Explained to keep you updated: What can cause a COVID-19 patient to relapse after recovery? | COVID-19 lockdown has cleaned up the air, but this may not be good news. Here’s why | Can alternative medicine work against the coronavirus? | A five-minute test for COVID-19 has been readied, India may get it too | How India is building up defence during lockdown | Why only a fraction of those with coronavirus suffer acutely | How do healthcare workers protect themselves from getting infected? | What does it take to set up isolation wards?
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