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Apple and Google are building a coronavirus tracking system into iOS and Android

The Verge logo The Verge 4/10/2020 Russell Brandom and Adi Robertson
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Apple and Google announced a system for tracking the spread of the new coronavirus, allowing users to share data through Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) transmissions and approved apps from health organizations.

The new system, which is laid out in a series of white papers, would use short-range Bluetooth communications to establish a voluntary contact-tracing network, keeping extensive data on phones that have been in close proximity with each other. Official apps from public health authorities will get access to this data, and users who download them can report if they’ve been been diagnosed with COVID-19. The system will also alert people who download them to whether in close contact with an infected person.

Apple and Google will introduce a pair of iOS and Android APIs in mid-May and make sure these health authorities’ apps can implement them. In the months after those are complete, the companies will work on building tracing functionality into the underlying operating system, then let users decide whether to share information with a wider range of apps.

a screenshot of text: Screen shot 2020 04 10 at 1.08.36 pm © Apple/Google Screen shot 2020 04 10 at 1.08.36 pm

Contact tracing is one of the most promising solutions for containing COVID-19, but it also raises massive privacy concerns. Earlier this week, the American Civil Liberties Union raised concern about tracking users with phone data, arguing that any system would need to be limited in scope and avoid compromising user privacy.

Unlike some other tracking methods — like, say, using GPS data — this Bluetooth plan wouldn’t track people’s physical location. It would basically pick up the signals of nearby phones at 5-minute intervals and store the connections between them in a database. If one person tests positive for the novel coronavirus, they could tell the app they’ve been infected, and it could notify other people whose phones passed within close range in the preceding days.

The system also takes a number of steps to prevent people from being identified, even after they’ve shared their data. While the app checks in regularly over Bluetooth, the information it sends is an anonymous key rather than a static identity, and those keys cycle every 15 minutes to preserve privacy. Even once a person shares that they’ve been infected, the app will only share keys from the specific period in which they were contagious. All the cryptographic calculation is performed on the device, with central servers only maintaining a database of shared keys. As a result, there is no centrally accessible master list of which phones have matched, contagious or otherwise.

The method still has potential weaknesses. In crowded areas, it could flag people in adjacent rooms who aren’t actually sharing space with the user, making people worry unnecessarily. It may also not capture the nuance of how long someone was exposed — working next to an infected person all day, for example, will expose you to a much greater virus load than walking by them on the street.

It’s also a relatively new program, and Apple and Google are still talking to public health authorities and other stakeholders about how to run it. This system probably can’t replace old-fashioned methods of contact tracing, which involve interviewing infected people about where they’ve been and who they’ve spent time with. But it could offer a high-tech supplement using a device that billions of people already own.

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