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How Apple and Google will track the coronavirus from your phone

·Technology Editor
·6 min read
In this article:
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On Friday, Apple, and Google parent company, Alphabet, two of the tech industry’s fiercest competitors, announced a joint effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus through consumers’ smartphones.

The joint effort will utilize so-called contact tracing, which helps public health officials identify and notify individuals who have come into contact with someone who has COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. But rather than deploying boots on the ground, the firms will use the Bluetooth connections built into their millions of smartphones.

By doing so, the hope is, they can convince anyone who is at risk of contracting coronavirus to self-isolate, effectively cutting off the virus’s ability to spread through communities. The ultimate goal: To allow the country to tentatively re-open in the absence of a vaccine.

Here’s how the system will work, and, the companies say, protect your privacy.

How Apple and Google will track the virus

The tracing software will roll out in two separate waves.

In the first wave, which will be deployed in mid-May, Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG, GOOGL) will release an application programming interface (API) that will enable Bluetooth proximity detection on users’ devices to work with apps built by public health authorities.

01 April 2020, Berlin: A woman looks at her smartphone at Alexanderplatz. The German government has high hopes for an app for tracking corona infection chains, which is currently being tested in Berlin. In order to slow down the spread of the corona virus, the federal government has further considerably restricted public life. Photo: Kay Nietfeld/dpa (Photo by Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Apple and Google will use Bluetooth technology to help track coronavirus infections, in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. (Image: Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images)

The Bluetooth detection function, when enabled, will continually search for other users’ nearby smartphones. When in range of each other, the devices will share anonymous identifier beacons, which will be stored locally on each users’ phone, not on a server.

Beacons being broadcast will change every 15 minutes, so that a single beacon can’t be used to track a user’s location.

If a person is diagnosed with coronavirus, they would voluntarily enter their infection status into their health authority’s app. The app would then push the last 14 days worth of identifier beacons collected by the users’ phone to a server.

Uninfected users’ devices will regularly check to see if the broadcast beacons they’ve received have been associated with a positive infection.

If one of the beacons on their phone comes up as such, the person will receive a notification telling them how to move forward with potential treatments via their health authority’s app. They’ll never know who the other person was, or where they interacted with them.

The Apple and Google initiative would use Bluetooth and continuously changing identifier beacons to let people know if they've come into contact with someone with the coronavirus. (Image: Google/ Apple)
The Apple and Google initiative would use Bluetooth and continuously changing identifier beacons to let people know if they've come into contact with someone with the coronavirus. (Image: Apple/ Google)
If a person you've been in contact with submits their positive diagnosis to the tracking app, you'll receive a notification. (Image: Apple/ Google)
If a person you've been in contact with submits their positive diagnosis to the tracking app, you'll receive a notification. (Image: Apple/ Google)

The second wave of the software rollout will bring the Bluetooth beacon function to the operating system level of both Android and iOS devices. This, the companies say, will provide improved beacon sharing, and allow users to participate in the initiative without first having to download an app.

The idea is that by eliminating the need for an app, the companies will remove a friction point for consumers, making them more likely to use the service.

Potential privacy concerns

The chief concern for Apple and Google, given the companies are dealing with medical data, is convincing users that their information and security will be protected.

According to the firms, the tracing initiative is something users have to specifically opt into, and no personally identifiable information or location data will be collected via the software.

“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 companies announced in a joint press statement. “We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyze.”

Both tech giants say information will only be used by health authorities to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

Smartphone contact tracing is likely the best means the country has to track the coronavirus, and both companies are acutely aware that for this system to work, they need the public’s trust.

Spokespeople for both companies have gone to great lengths to detail the fact that they are developing these services as a means to advance the public good, and not for financial gain, or to give governmental entities the ability to track their citizens.

In fact, according to Apple and Google, the identifier beacons that users share are worthless to any entity beyond the smartphones they’re shared with. Outside of that, they’re a random string of characters.

According to NYU Tandon School of Engineering professor Damon McCoy, the Bluetooth sharing aspect of the initiative is fairly straightforward. Your smartphone is already able to see all nearby available Bluetooth connections as it is. So this wouldn’t be much different.

In this April 1, 2020, photo, a QR code is set up for passengers to check their green pass status at a subway station in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province. Life in China post-coronavirus outbreak is ruled by a green symbol on a smartphone screen. Green signifies the "health code" that says the user is symptom-free. It is required to board a subway, check into a hotel or enter Wuhan, the city where the global pandemic began. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
China is using a QR code-based system to track citizens and their health around the city of Wuhan. Apple and Google say their technology will be anonymous, and couldn't be used to track users' locations. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Even the idea of using Bluetooth to track consumers is old news. As McCoy points out, retailers frequently use Bluetooth beacons in their stores to send you things like coupons while you’re browsing their aisles.

What’s more, a number of unknowns about the project lead McCoy to question whether Bluetooth identifiers could be used by third-party apps to feed data brokers for things like advertising.

Apple and Google, however, say they won’t use these Bluetooth identifier beacons for anything outside of their purpose of slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

Perhaps the toughest challenge for the companies will be to develop a means for users to self-report their infection status while preventing abuse by online trolls.

The companies say they are working on some form of verification system that ensures users who say they have contracted the virus are actually infected and not trying to game the service. But they didn’t offer any concrete details beyond that.

“If anyone could say, ‘I’m positive,’ they could just go to a crowded area, and say ‘Oh, I’m positive’ and just spam people with positive results, and make everyone think they’ve been exposed to COVID,” McCoy explained.

If the firms can overcome such issues, then the service may provide a powerful means to combat the spread of coronavirus, and help Americans get back to some semblance of normal life.

More from Dan:

Got a tip? Email Daniel Howley at danielphowley@protonmail.com or dhowley@yahoofinance.com, and follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.

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