Apple, Google team up to develop COVID-19 contact tracing technology

The joint effort will focus on the use of Bluetooth technology to track the spread and identify potential hotspots of coronavirus transmission based on smartphone location data.
Written by Natalie Gagliordi, Contributor

Tech behemoths Apple and Google are joining forces to develop COVID-19 contact tracing technology for government health agencies. The joint effort, announced on Friday, will focus on the use of Bluetooth technology to track the spread and identify potential hotspots of coronavirus transmission based on smartphone location data. 

Starting next month, Apple and Google will launch APIs and operating system-level technology that will enable contact tracing applications, the companies said. The APIs will launch in May, allowing interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities.

After that, the companies will work to build Bluetooth-based contact tracing functionality into their underlying platforms. More robust than an API, this technology would allow more people to opt-in to contact tracing programs as well as enable interaction between smartphone data and government health authorities. 

"Since COVID-19 can be transmitted through close proximity to affected individuals, public health officials have identified contact tracing as a valuable tool to help contain its spread," the companies wrote in a joint press release. "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. 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."

With this effort, Apple and Google will play a central role in facilitating the government's use of location data during the coronavirus pandemic. Contact tracing is considered one of the most effective ways to slow the spread of infectious disease, but when coupled with the use of smartphone location data, the practice raises serious concerns over user privacy.

This week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a white paper calling out multiple issues with how location data is collected and has been used for tracking the COVID-19 outbreak. The report, written by ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley and surveillance and cybersecurity counsel Jennifer Stisa Granick, questions whether location tracking technology via smartphones can actually help improve contact tracing during the coronavirus pandemic. The ACLU argues that location data is simply not accurate enough for automated contact tracing or reliable enough to figure out who was in close contact with whom.

"Even if we were to imagine a set of location data that had pinpoint accuracy, there would still be problems translating that in any automated way into reliable guesses about whether two people were in danger of transmitting an infection," Stanley and Granick wrote in the report. 

Looking specifically at Bluetooth, the ACLU points out that not all phones have Bluetooth turned on by default and that Bluetooth itself is not reliably accurate to within six feet -- the distance the CDC recommends be kept from a person who has tested positive for the virus. 

The ACLU isn't entirely opposed to using technology for the purpose of contact tracing in the fight against coronavirus, but the group emphasizes that any government attempts to increase surveillance powers during a national crisis should be closely scrutinized.

"The potential for invasions of privacy, abuse and stigmatization is enormous," the ACLU said. "Any uses of such data should be temporary, restricted to public health agencies and purposes, and should make the greatest possible use of available techniques that allow for privacy and anonymity to be protected even as the data is used."

Nonetheless, Google and Apple say they are committed to the effort and insist that privacy, transparency, and consent "are of utmost importance" as they work to build this functionality. The companies said they plan to openly publish their work on the matter for others to analyze.  

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