Mobile Technology

Google & Apple join forces to develop smartphone COVID-19 contact tracing

Google & Apple join forces to ...
Apple and Google are working together to ensure the Bluetooth-based tracking technology effectively communicates between iOS and Android operating systems
Apple and Google are working together to ensure the Bluetooth-based tracking technology effectively communicates between iOS and Android operating systems
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Apple and Google are working together to ensure the Bluetooth-based tracking technology effectively communicates between iOS and Android operating systems
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Apple and Google are working together to ensure the Bluetooth-based tracking technology effectively communicates between iOS and Android operating systems
Graphic illustrating how the "privacy-safe contact tracing" method works using Bluetooth Low Energy technology
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Graphic illustrating how the "privacy-safe contact tracing" method works using Bluetooth Low Energy technology
Graphic illustrating how the "privacy-safe contact tracing" method works using Bluetooth Low Energy technology
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Graphic illustrating how the "privacy-safe contact tracing" method works using Bluetooth Low Energy technology
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In an unprecedented collaborative move, Google and Apple are working together to develop a novel smartphone-based system that can help identify those who have been in proximity to someone with COVID-19. The Bluetooth-based technology will begin rolling out on both iOS and Android devices from mid-May.

With most of the world in lockdown, subject to severe stay-at-home orders, many are asking how we can re-emerge without suffering subsequent viral outbreaks. Contact tracing will be a vital technique in stemming the spread of COVID-19 over the next year or two while the world waits for a vaccine.

Contact tracing is basically public health detective work. When a person is confirmed with an infectious disease, it becomes important to identify who they have been in contact with in the time leading up to their diagnosis. This allows those potentially exposed to an infection the chance to be tested and self-isolate. Contact tracing is one of the most effective ways to stem the spread of communicable diseases.

A recent study led by Oxford University researchers, and published in the journal Science, suggested classic contact tracing methods may be too slow to stop the spread of this new coronavirus. The study found digital contact tracing techniques, leaning on the ubiquity of smartphones, may be the best way to slow transmission and allow countries to safely end lockdowns.

“Our analysis suggests that about half of transmissions occur in the early phase of the infection, before you show any symptoms of infection,” explains Christophe Fraser, lead author on the recent study. “Our mathematical models also highlight that traditional public health contact tracing approaches provide incomplete data and cannot keep up with the pace of this pandemic.”

The solution proposed by Google and Apple is one that attempts to balance efficacy while maintaining the privacy of users that opt-in. The system will not utilize GPS location-based data, but will instead rely on Bluetooth technology.

Graphic illustrating how the "privacy-safe contact tracing" method works using Bluetooth Low Energy technology
Graphic illustrating how the "privacy-safe contact tracing" method works using Bluetooth Low Energy technology
Graphic illustrating how the "privacy-safe contact tracing" method works using Bluetooth Low Energy technology
Graphic illustrating how the "privacy-safe contact tracing" method works using Bluetooth Low Energy technology

The smartphone system will essentially create an ongoing log of other smartphones it has been in close proximity with. If a person tests positive for COVID-19 they can register their diagnosis through an app that then logs the diagnostic data and notifies other users that have been in close proximity with the newly diagnosed case.

The fundamental privacy hinge the system relies upon is that these Bluetooth contact logs stay on an individual person’s phone, and all match identification processes take place locally on a user's phone. Plus, the identity of those testing positive to COVID-19 is never disclosed to other users.

The system is set to be rolled out in two phases. Phase one will deploy in mid-May and involve an application programming interface (API) being released to allow for apps designed by public health authorities to interact with this digital contact tracing data. This means if users want to take part in the system, they would have to download a specific app designed by their local health authority.

The second phase, to be rolled out in the coming months, will involve a broad iOS and Android system update to integrate the contact tracing tool into each smartphone’s operating system. This means users will not have to download a specific app to opt in but instead be able to activate contact tracing through a menu option in their phone settings.

As stressed by Apple and Google in a recent joint statement, the entire system will be opt in, so users will have to choose to activate it and participate. All Bluetooth contact logs will only be stored locally on each user’s phone, and those logs contain no location information, only notes on what other smartphones have been in its proximity over the prior 14-day period.

“Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders,” the two companies say in a joint statement announcing the project. “We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyze.”

Sources: Apple, Google

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10 comments
AbhishekSingh
Technology is upgrading so fast!
ppeter
Actually, it's not. The software requirements specification sounds like something a pro should be able to write in a week, maybe even in a weekend hackathon. It's quite strange that they need a month to do it. The only reason I can think of is that Bluetooth is not built for measuring the distance between two devices and that it's quite difficult to get that info out of this protocol.
TomWatson
BIG BROTHER & the Holding Co. ..... Don't know about this one. Perhaps we have to, but we do not want THEM to have too much information or know WHERE I am. More discussion on this is needed. We do not want to open the economy and then have to shut it again. We may have another Great Depression if we have to go there. Personally, I think many do not comply and we may have to do this, I hope not.
buzzclick
Early on in February and perhaps sooner, the Chinese gov got cracking and had an algorithm ready on everyone's cell phone that used a simple red, yellow and green signal that indicates where you've been and who you were in proximity to. So if someone wanted to enter a shopping or other public area, security personnel would check your phone. If you had a red or even a yellow, you would be stopped from entering. A green meant you were good to go. I know I have simplified the process, but that's essentially how it worked. When you're dealing with a population of 11 million people in a city on lockdown and a province of 55 million, you better be sure that whoever is moving about can safely do so. Of course, people in the West immediately made claims of a government keeping close watch on everybody and their privacy, but the people knew how crucial this system was in preventing the pandemic from going out of control. Now, folks here in the Western countries have realized the effectiveness of such a systemic solution, and they're coming out with their own versions, but they have to tiptoe around the privacy issue first. In this kind of crucial situation, time is critical. The sooner the outbreak is dealt with is the way to go. Privacy has no significance if you're dying in a hospital bed.
Nobody
We will all eventually be exposed to this virus. Flattening the curve makes sense but once we have enough ventilators to handle the sick, it is time to let everyone go back to their normal life. Yes, some will die but if we are all going to be exposed eventually then the lock downs are a waste of time and more destructive than the disease.
dcris
Fear will buy you anything....including the slippery slope of gradual personal invasion. I don't carry my cell phone around like a tethered friend...and will not in the future.... What a scam...
Tom Lee Mullins
I think it has a potential for abuse. From tracking people who had exposure to just tracking people who they might not agree with or simply want to control or keep track of.
Philip Argy
As earlier comments show, people don't understand the double blind implementation proposed. Phones will exchange keys with each other. No other information will be exchanged. So that a key will not be associated with a person or a place or a time. If a person tests positive they will simply indicate that status in the app and their key will be uploaded to a list of positive tested keys. Everyone's phone will daily download the list of positive tested keys. All that a user's phone will be able to ALERT is that a list of keys for positive tested people includes a key that the user's phone has stored. So they won't know who or where or when if that information is not stored with the key. It will then be up to the user what to do about the alert, but it will be enough to make them eligible to be tested.

If this is carefully explained to people and the government is not tempted to store more information with each key then we should get the requisite level of opt-in. Otherwise the exercise will be futile.
Brian M
@Nobody
Flattening and then allowing herd immunity to build up might be the answer. However WHO has recently stated there is no evidence of antibody immunity, the consequences if true would be devastating implying little chance of herd immunity or a vaccine, so requiring a concerted effort of trace and isolate to eliminate the virus (like smallpox has been eliminated).

As SARS-CoV-2 is not that different to other similar viruses its a fair bet there will be a sufficient immunity given to give a level of herd immunity.
Brian M
Just a thought why even bother tracing when some authorities (UK) are still allowing incoming international flights without quarantining - makes a mockery of lockdown..