Apple and Google offer a first glimpse of their COVID-19 contact tracing solution

Earlier this year, we reported that Apple and Google – two of the leading technology companies on the globe and the makers of the world’s most popular smartphone operating systems – had teamed up to create a new contact tracing system that would alert smartphone users if they had come into contact with another person who’d been tested positive for COVID-19. Now, both firms have revealed a first glimpse into the forthcoming release of the feature.

To recap, the system, which will work across Android and iOS, is built on Bluetooth Low Energy; a variant of the commonplace Bluetooth standard which instead of continously seeking compatible devices or maintaining a connection, instead intermittently searches and maintains connections to other hardware. The feature is most commonly used to pair accessory devices; in use, one might leverage Bluetooth Low Energy to find a companion device (such as wireless headphones, a smart watch, or another peripheral) on first setup.

However, Bluetooth Low Energy can also be used to ‘sweep’ for other devices and exchange rudimentary device information without initiating a full transfer of, say, a file, or the same connection one would use to stream music. On this basis, Apple and Google have issued plans for devices to exchange encrypted and anonymised keys with each other – smartphones would be able to exchange the status of whether their owner had either been infected, or exposed to someone who themselves had been infected with COVID-19.

While the system will be available for all users without restriction, it will be up to users to disclose whether they have tested positive for the virus.

In day-to-day use, users would be able to recieve alerts that they may have been infected with COVID-19 and should therefore self-isolate, quarantine, or get tested by a medical professional. The system will be available as an open-source API, which will allow third-party apps to collect anonymised data for use by governments and health care practitioners.

Following privacy concerns, both firms have committed to six guiding principles:

  • The system will be discontinued once the public health care crisis has passed,
  • The system, and apps connected through an API, can only be used for COVID-19 response effort,
  • The system will be restricted from using Location Services,
  • The system will require opt-in consent before  sharing a positive diagnosis,
  • No forms of targeted advertising will be allowed through apps connected to an API,
  • And any existing apps using targeted advertising or location services will need to turn off those systems before they access the API.

Interestingly, both Apple and Google will limit API access to the system to just one app per country in a bid to prevent manipulation, competition, and fragmentation – where there are multiple and conflicting reports.

What are your thoughts? Would you actively use the service and disclose your status if you tested positive fo COVID-19? Be sure to let us know your opinion in the comments below.