Apple and Google plan to use Bluetooth to track the spread of COVID-19

A few days ago, Apple and Google announced unprecedented plans to work together on a massive task – to develop contact tracing that could leverage smartphone features to identify and detect the spread of the Coronavirus through monitoring infected patients and the people they come into contact with. Now, while most details remain scarce, both firms have concluded to use Bluetooth LE as the means to develop the system.

Bluetooth – the wireless communication standard – enables the exchange of data between devices using short-wavelength UHF radio waves. Bluetooth LE – or Low Energy – as its name implies, is a variant of this standard which only leverages temporary bursts rather than a continuous connection and in turn consumes far less battery life. Bluetooth LE is used on a range of devices, and is usually indistinguishable in operation to conventional Bluetooth when at the consumer-end of a connection.

Bluetooth LE uses what’s called a proximity profile to locate devices and track them – perhaps the most famous example being a Tile tracker, or Bluetooth-enabled tracking devices or setup procedures where your phone might automatically prompt you to connect to a device without the need to manually pair through a standard Bluetooth connection. Through this mode, Apple and Google plan to develop a contact tracing system that could feasibly allow smartphones to detect the proximity of another device – and, ergo, trace the proximity of an infected COVID-19 patient with other persons.

Bluetooth LE has another extraordinary advantage besides its inherent makeup and properties – the standard is available on an immensely broad range of devices, from affordable Android devices, to flagships, to the iPhone, iPad, and a multitude of smart devices in-between.

While the specifics of the partnership’s contact tracing system have yet to be announced, the end result will likely be one of the most pervasive tracking systems yet developed.

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