Apple & Google Team Up To Create Coronavirus Tracking App

Once competitors, and now teammates, tech giants Apple and Google have announced a collaboration that will create new contact tracing models aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus through new opt-ins on their phones.

Between them, Apple and Google command a 99% share of the operating system landscape on smartphones, which is the driving force behind the announcement.

Once a user opts-in to the feature, the operating system would trace movements, and make a log of any other devices they have been near, with the aim to get potentially infected individuals to seek testing or go into quarantine to mitigate the chances of the virus spreading in a community, shopping center or public area.

This would help health authorities around the world to actively track the spread of the virus, and is claimed to be one of the most accurate and cost-effective means of curving the rate of the COVID-19 virus spreading and accurately plotting geographic hot-spots that local residents should be alerted to.

The technology will work as follows: once a user agrees to the feature, that device will begin emitting a special Bluetooth signal that will be received by any device within 1.7-meters.

Someone that has tested positive for the coronavirus, for example, will be able to send an encrypted list of phones they’ve come in close contact with, which health authorities can use to identify members of the public that they may have infected.

The companies have stated that the feature has been in development for around two weeks now, but have admitted that in order to be an effective means of preventing the spread of coronavirus, they need a large number of users to adopt the new feature; they need the public to trust that they’ll be responsible with the data collected, and that there will be adequate oversight from health officials.

According to reports, “the logs will be scrambled to keep infected individuals’ data anonymous, even to Apple, Google and contact tracing app makers, the companies said. Apple and Google said their contact tracing system will not track GPS location.”

The announcement has also ignited privacy fears from some technology analysts, who have drawn parallels to technology used by autocratic governments around the globe. According to a report from Reuters, “the planned technology also throws the weight of tech leaders into a global conflict between privacy advocates who favor a decentralized system to trade contacts and governments in Europe and Asia pushing centralised approaches that have technical weaknesses and potentially let governments know with whom people associate.”

US President Trump said at a press briefing that “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,” he said.

The companies have announced that each of a device's signals - or beacon IDs - will be changed every fifteen minutes, meaning that your device won’t have a unique ID for longer than a few minutes, and these IDs will be deleted two-weeks after they’re first created.

According to The Guardian, “all the beacon keys are stored on the phone, and if you test positive for coronavirus, it is envisioned that the user would then consent via a public health authority app to having all that user’s beacon IDs for the last 14 days uploaded to a server.”

Al Gidari, a lecturer at Stanford University’s law school said “this isn’t a substitute for testing - you need to know who has it - but it produces actionable results so people can act responsible, self-isolate and reduce anxiety in the community as a whole.”

Jennifer Granick, a member of the surveillance and cybersecurity counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union disagrees with this, however, stating that “to their credit, Apple and Google have announced an approach that appears to mitigate the worst privacy and centralization risks.”

According to Casey Newton, a contributing writer at The Verge “the companies said that by phase two of their effort, when contact tracing is enabled at the level of the operating system, they will notify people who have opted in to their potential exposure to COVI-19 even if they have not downloaded the relevant app from their public health authority.”

The software update is slated for a release mid-May, once national health services are able to insert it into one of their existing apps used by the public.

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