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Apple and Google add new tech specs for coronavirus tracking tool to boost user privacy

Apple and Google add new tech specs for coronavirus tracking tool to boost user privacy

Getting over the novel coronavirus outbreak, health experts and officials say, will take an extensive contact tracing regime in order to determine who will be able to get back to normal life the fastest and who will need to stay vigilant. With this in mind, Apple and Google have announced a collaboration on universal mobile APIs to introduce a Bluetooth-based contact tracing system — first through official apps, then, at some point, right on the operating systems of smartphones and tablets.

Keeping records of people who have been in close proximity to others will allow health agencies to notify people quickly if it turns out that anyone they’ve spent time with has been diagnosed with COVID-19. Some governments have already launched contact tracing initiatives — Massachusetts has assigned 1,000 people to make phone calls while Rhode Island’s governor has asked citizens to keep daily contact journals in anticipation of submitting those logs to a large-scale contact tracing system powered by Salesforce.  However, researchers at Lincoln Laboratories and MIT suggest that federating and automating contact tracing via Bluetooth will make the process easier to track and produce accurate footprints of where the virus is with little lag time so that officials can take swift, narrowly-targeted action.

It’s in that light with which Google and Apple have laid out their contact tracing development and distribution plans in a joint statement. Starting in May, public health agencies will be able to take advantage of the APIs in their own apps. Sometime in the next few months, Android and iOS will then be updated to incorporate the contact tracing APIs on the OS level.

Appless contact tracing will be opt-in, it’s promised, with an emphasis on  privacy, transparency, and consent. Draft blueprints for Bluetooth, cryptography, and API specifications are available from Apple right now. Most data processing will be device-based and will not be tied to user location — public health apps requesting that information are required to prompt for system permissions anyways. Ultimately, it will be up to the user to decide what information to submit, including whether they have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

There will always be concern about how broad-based initiatives can be exploited by malicious actors. Those worries are especially pertinent in a time where many people have lost financial security, are struggling with their personal and domestic lives, or are still vulnerable to the virus. Desperation will breed dastardly ingenuity — something the two tech behemoths will have to be vigilant for as the rest of us are right now.