Apple and Google are collaborating to launch a system “to assist in enabling contact tracing”, whereby apps can notify smartphone users if they have come into proximity with people infected by Covid-19.
The rare collaboration, announced on Friday morning, comes as demand has grown for tech-based crisis solutions that preserve user privacy. The hope is that aggressive contact tracing can allow cities to emerge from “shelter at home” mandates while still containing the outbreak.
“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,” Apple said in one of the technical documents it released.
“This is huge,” said Barry Hayut, chief executive at Hayver, which builds population-monitoring apps to combat diseases. “This is another tool, a feature we can incorporate without having to develop it . . . and we can leverage it for our core functionality.”
Apple and Google will not be doing the contact tracing themselves, but are making their smartphone platforms available for governments and NGOs. These will then still face the thorny problem of designing apps that people want to use while not compromising privacy.
However, the Silicon Valley companies said they would only support opt-in apps that use privacy-preserving Bluetooth technology, rather than GPS location tracking. Researchers at Oxford university have found that at least 60 per cent of a given population would need to use such tools for them to be effective.
A flurry of contact-tracing app projects has emerged in recent weeks, some independent and others with government backing. Many have tended towards using Bluetooth technology, whereby users opt to allow their mobiles to receive Bluetooth signals from other nearby phones and keep a record of them for a pre-agreed period of time. Privacy advocates say this arrangement is the least intrusive form of mobile tracking.
When an individual tests positive, they can then typically use the app to alert a central authority — such as a public health agency. The agency will then be able to access their data briefly to identify and notify others who may have been exposed, while protecting the infected individual’s identity.
The technology is already being used in places such as Singapore, where TraceTogether, a government-based Bluetooth app, has been downloaded more than 1m times. In the UK, a government-backed project could be launched within weeks. However, in the US, more scattershot efforts are in need of collaboration.
Privacy groups have noted that in some countries, such as China and South Korea, similar technologies have been used to usher in surveillance capabilities.
Some researchers also warn that the Bluetooth method may not be as precise as gathering GPS location data. For example, evidence suggests coronavirus can be transferred via surfaces even after a substantial period of time, so it may be better to monitor where someone went rather than with whom they crossed paths.
The two tech giants, whose iOS and Android software underlie virtually all smartphones, said their efforts will “help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design.”
The collaboration comes in two parts. In May, both companies will launch application programming interfaces — better known as APIs — to support contact tracing tools into Apple and Android-based phones that can operate with each other.
In the months after, a “more robust solution” will build tracing functionality directly into the two operating systems.
The tools are opt-in only but will be designed for large numbers of users to participate and “enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities”.
The joint effort is designed to be transparent. The companies have pledged that they will “openly publish information about our work for others to analyse”.