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Google and Apple join hands to develop Covid-19 contact tracing app

Due to their efficient and reliable tracking, contact tracing apps are fast gaining popularity and countries like Germany, UK, Russia and Israel are developing their own apps. Singapore and South Korea have been able to contain the spread of the virus largely due to popular contact tracing apps, namely TraceTogether and Corona 100m. So it doesn’t come across as a surprise when two rival tech giants – Google and Apple – have decided to join hands to develop a contact-tracing app that doesn’t infringe on user privacy. A contact tracing app uses Bluetooth and location technology to track infected people and notify those who were in close proximity to them during the past 15 days.

New allies

The Silicon Valley behemoths have joined forces to enable the use of Bluetooth to help businesses and health agencies mitigate the influence of the virus, while not compromising with privacy.

The new system will use short-range Bluetooth to enable contact tracing and collecting phone data that have been in proximity. Apps developed by health authorities will be allowed access to this app data and users who install it will be able to report if they have tested positive for coronavirus. Like all other contact tracing apps, it will apprise other users if and when they come in close contact with an infected person.

Image Courtesy: Google

The APIs will permit healthcare apps to use the phones Bluetooth to track if the person has come in contact with someone who has been infected. Once the person has been notified, he can either self-quarantine himself or get himself tested. The phone will also ping Bluetooth signals to those in the vicinity and constantly look for communications. In case two phones are in close range for more than a few minutes, they would exchange unique information including beacon numbers that are based on keys stored on each phone. Healthcare authorities would be able to tap into the information to curtail the spread of the virus.

The companies will be launching a comprehensive solution that includes APIs and operating system technology to enable contact tracing. The app will be unveiled after two steps and after ensuring strict privacy protections.

Two-step approach

In May 2020, both the companies will release APIs that allow interoperability between Android and iOS devices and use public health authorities apps. These apps will be available for download on Google Play and Apple app stores.

After this, both the companies will enable a Bluetooth-based contact tracing app platform by building its functionality into their existing platforms. This will be a more elaborate and expansive system that will allow individuals to voluntarily participate, if they wish, to interact with a wide range of apps and government healthcare departments. The information about the project will be released publicly so that everyone can benefit from it. The white paper of the APIs has already been released.

“Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders”, says the official joint announcement by the both the companies, which has been published on Google as well as Apple blogs.

CEOs of both the companies took to Twitter to announce this project. “We’re working with @sundarpichai & @Google to help health officials harness Bluetooth technology in a way that also respects transparency & consent”, tweeted Tim Cook, CEO, Apple.

“To help public health officials slow the spread of #COVID19, Google & @Apple are working on a contact tracing approach designed with strong controls and protections for user privacy”, tweeted Sundar Pichai, CEO, Google.

Location-based technologies and smartphone tracking apps are playing a significant role in the times of Covid-19 pandemic. They are helping governments and healthcare organizations in maintaining an exhaustive database, analyzing hotspots and doing predictive analysis.