Ap­ple, Google join forces on COVID-19 con­tact-trac­ing


Ap­ple Inc. and Google un­veiled a rare part­ner­ship to add tech­nol­ogy to their smart­phone plat­forms that will alert users if they have come into con­tact with a per­son with COVID-19. Peo­ple must opt in to the sys­tem, but it has the po­ten­tial to mon­i­tor about a third of the world’s pop­u­la­tion.

The tech­nol­ogy, known as con­tact-trac­ing, is de­signed to curb the spread of the novel coro­n­avirus by telling users they should quar­an­tine or iso­late them­selves af­ter con­tact with an in­fected in­di­vid­ual.

The Sil­i­con Val­ley ri­vals said on Fri­day that they are build­ing the tech­nol­ogy into their IOS and An­droid op­er­at­ing sys­tems in two steps. In mid-may, the com­pa­nies will add the abil­ity for iphones and An­droid phones to wire­lessly ex­change anony­mous in­for­ma­tion via apps run by pub­lic health author­i­ties. The com­pa­nies will also re­lease frame­works for pub­lic health apps to man­age the func­tion­al­ity.

This means that if a user tests pos­i­tive for COVID-19, and adds that data to their pub­lic health app, users who they came into close prox­im­ity with over the pre­vi­ous sev­eral days will be no­ti­fied of their con­tact. This pe­riod could be 14 days, but health agen­cies can set the time range.

The sec­ond step takes longer. In the com­ing months, both com­pa­nies will add the tech­nol­ogy di­rectly into their op­er­at­ing sys­tems so this con­tact-trac­ing soft­ware works with­out hav­ing to down­load an app. Users must opt in, but this ap­proach means many more peo­ple can be in­cluded. Ap­ple’s IOS and Google’s An­droid have about three bil­lion users be­tween them.

Still, this tech­nol­ogy is con­tro­ver­sial be­cause it in­volves shar­ing sen­si­tive health in­for­ma­tion from bil­lions of peo­ple via mo­bile de­vices that are con­stantly broad­cast­ing their lo­ca­tion. Ap­ple and Google stressed on Fri­day that their sys­tem pre­serves users’ pri­vacy. Con­sent is re­quired and lo­ca­tion data is not col­lected. The tech­nol­ogy also won’t no­tify users who they came into con­tact with, or where that hap­pened. The com­pa­nies said they can’t see this data ei­ther, and noted that the whole sys­tem can be shut down when needed.

The pan­demic has killed al­most 100,000 and in­fected 1.62 mil­lion peo­ple. Gov­ern­ments have or­dered mil­lions of peo­ple to stay home, send­ing the global econ­omy into a vi­cious tail­spin. Pres­sure is build­ing to re­lax these mea­sures and get the world back to work. Con­tract-trac­ing is a key part of this be­cause it can help author­i­ties con­tain a po­ten­tial resur­gence of the virus as peo­ple re­sume reg­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties.

The con­tract-trac­ing tech­nol­ogy isn’t the first step against COVID-19 for ei­ther com­pany. Google launched an in­for­ma­tion web­site in March, while Ap­ple has re­leased its own screen­ing tools for iphone users. Ap­ple has also do­nated over 20 mil­lion masks to health-care work­ers and has de­signed face shields, and Ver­ily, a unit of Google par­ent Al­pha­bet Inc., is run­ning virus-test­ing sites in some parts of Cal­i­for­nia.

Other or­ga­ni­za­tions are also work­ing on con­tact-trac­ing. Re­searchers at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy ear­lier this week an­nounced plans for a sim­i­lar sys­tem. Some coun­tries and third-party de­vel­op­ers have also tried im­ple­ment­ing con­tact-trac­ing on phones, but they have faced pri­vacy and con­nec­tiv­ity is­sues that the new sys­tem is de­signed to avoid.

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