Apple and Google, two of the world’s biggest tech giants and rivals in the business, on Friday announced a partnership to build a contact tracing technology that will help in slowing down the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) via smartphones.
“Google and Apple are announcing a joint effort to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design,” the two companies said in a joint statement.
“There has never been a more important moment to work together to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems,” Apple and Google said.
“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,” the statement added.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai took to Twitter to talk about the project, saying the two companies “are committed to working together on these efforts” to help public health officials slow the spread of COVID-19.
To help public health officials slow the spread of #COVID19, Google & @Apple are working on a contact tracing approach designed with strong controls and protections for user privacy. @tim_cook and I are committed to working together on these efforts.https://t.co/T0j88YBcFu
— Sundar Pichai (@sundarpichai) April 10, 2020
Apple CEO Tim Cook also tweeted that the new initiative “respects transparency and consent.”
Contact tracing can help slow the spread of COVID-19 and can be done without compromising user privacy. We’re working with @sundarpichai & @Google to help health officials harness Bluetooth technology in a way that also respects transparency & consent. https://t.co/94XlbmaGZV
— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) April 10, 2020
The new technology is laid out in a series of documents and white papers, which was published by Apple and Google on Friday. The contact tracing technology uses the Bluetooth LE (Low Energy) for proximity detection of nearby smartphones, and for the data exchange mechanism.
Contact Tracing makes it possible to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus by alerting participants of possible exposure to someone who they have recently been in contact with, and who has subsequently been positively diagnosed as having the virus.
For instance, Bluetooth signals would be emitted from users’ smartphones that have the technology enabled on it. Further, phones within about six feet will be able to record anonymous information about encounters.
In May, Apple and Google will initially introduce application programming interfaces (APIs) that enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices and help health authorities to implement them into their own apps. These official apps will be available for users to download via their respective app stores.
In the coming months after the API is complete, Apple and Google will work to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms that would allow more individuals to participate.
“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. A number of leading public health authorities, universities, and NGOs around the world have been doing important work to develop opt-in contact tracing technology,” the joint statement said.
What about privacy? Both Apple and Google insist that privacy and security is central and most important aspect of this COVID-19 tracing system. It will not collect personally-identifiable information (PII) or user location data, and the details of positive tested patients won’t be disclosed until the users’ gives consent to the app.
“Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders. We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyze,” it added.
99% of the world’s smartphones use Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems. The contact tracing tool will help people with their smartphones to find out whether they have come in contact with anyone who has the virus.
“It’s very interesting, but a lot of people worry about it in terms of a person’s freedom. We’re going to take a look at that, a very strong look at that,” said U.S. President Donald Trump about the initiative, in a press briefing.