In mid-May, the companies say they plan to release a private proximity contact detection API that users can opt into and public-health organizations can tap into. The app will be Bluetooth-based and usable on both iOS and Android devices, enabling users to track whether they have come into contact with someone who has been infected with the novel coronavirus.
Here’s how it will work: If two people with the app stand next to each other for a few minutes, their phones will exchange anonymous identifiers that change every 15 minutes. Later on, if one of those people winds up getting diagnosed with COVID-19 and enters that information into a public-health app that has also integrated the API, then the person they stood next to will be alerted that they have come into contact with someone with the virus. The app will then give them more information on how to proceed. The goal is to curb further spread of the virus by informing people they may be infected and encouraging them to quarantine.
In the coming months, the companies also plan to integrate the contact-tracing software directly into their operating systems without making people download an app. Users would still need to opt in, but this strategy means the tool is more accessible, potentially tracking the more than three billion smartphone users globally.
Technology like this has been pegged as a viable alternative to the mass quarantines much of the world is experiencing now, but it certainly has its fair share of concerns, especially when it comes to privacy. With this in mind, Google and Apple have put privacy and transparency at the forefront of this app. User consent is required for the tool to work and no location data is collected. Plus, the app doesn’t notify people where or from who they potentially contracted the virus.
“To their credit, Apple and Google have announced an approach that appears to mitigate the worst privacy and centralized risks, but there is still room for improvement,” Jennifer Granick, the surveillance and cybersecurity counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “We will remain vigilant moving forward to make sure any [contact] tracing app remains voluntary and decentralized, and used only for public health purposes and only for the duration of this pandemic.”
Going forward, the hope is that, if enough people choose to participate, this kind of tracking will help the world get back to normal safely.
“All of us at Apple and Google believe there has never been a more important moment to work together to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems,” the companies said in a shared statement. “Through close cooperation and collaboration with developers, governments and public health providers, we hope to harness the power of technology to help countries around the world slow the spread of COVID-19 and accelerate the return of everyday life.”