Apple and Google are putting their rivalry aside in the face of the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis. The tech giants are looking to contribute to the fight against the pandemic by enabling app developers looking to create contact tracing apps.
What is Contact Tracing?
Efforts to contain the spread of the disease often involve the contact tracing, which is the act of determining who a patient has been around in order to notify those individuals that they might have been exposed to the virus. Those people would then need to go get tested to determine whether or not they have been infected and if they need to begin a strict quarantine.
Contact tracing is proving to be an important aspect of combating the COVID-19 pandemic due to the virus’ long incubation period. However, the highly contagious nature of the disease has caused researchers at Oxford University to note that the virus spreads “too fast to be contained by manual contact tracing.” That research team has hypothesized that a contact-tracing app could “replace a week’s work of manual contact tracing with instantaneous signals transmitted to and from a central server.”
What do Apple and Google Have Planned?
The two tech giants, Apple and Google, are stepping up to the plate to help accelerate the process of contact tracing through the use of their technology. Their goal is to offer app developers the tools necessary to create an effective app with cross-platform capabilities.
On their website, Apple explains, “A number of leading public health authorities, universities, and NGOs around the world have been doing important work to develop opt-in contact tracing technology. To further this cause, Apple and Google will be launching a comprehensive solution that includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing.”
The technology at the center of this concept is Bluetooth. The ubiquitous tech is in practically every smart phone that is being used at the moment, regardless of its operating system. The way that the contact tracing apps work is by having phones send each other digital keys via Bluetooth that are then stored in a database that logs which devices have been in close proximity of each other. Once an app user updates their profile to show that they have tested positive for COVID-19, a notification is sent out to all the devices that have exchanged digital keys with the user’s device.
Being able to use an app across platforms is paramount in curbing the spread of the disease as the smart phone market is fairly diverse, with the US market being split between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems. Apple and Google plan to release the APIs to enable interoperability by mid-May. Over the next several months, Apple and Google will be looking to bring that technology into their underlying platforms in what they call “a more robust solution.”
With businesses reopening all around the world, the risk of increased cases of the virus is also increasing. To ensure employees’ safety at workplaces, one company, Mappedin, has worked with Apple to integrate contact tracing with hardware-free Indoor Positioning System (IPS). With this solution, the employers can analyze temporal and spatial data of the employees to spot any potential cases. Those people would then need to go get tested to determine whether or not they have been infected and if they need to begin a strict quarantine
Potential Issues and Privacy Concerns
One of the biggest flaws in technologically enhanced contact tracing lies in the users. For smart phone enabled contact tracing to be as effective as possible, it would need to be used across the whole population.
The only case study for technology like this is the Singaporean government’s use of contact tracing. The island nation — which is smaller than most major American cities — launched their own contact tracing app to combat the spread of COVID-19 last month and only saw one in six Singaporeans download the app. Singaporean officials believe that for the app to be effective, it would need to be used by three quarters of the country’s population.
Another issue that is worrying to many is potential privacy concerns. After the widespread concerns surrounding the COVID-19 online screening service launched by Google’s sister-company, Verily, cybersecurity experts are paying close attention to this new project.
Jennifer Granick from the ACLU addressed these concerns in a statement by saying, “To their credit, Apple and Google have announced an approach that appears to mitigate the worst privacy and centralization risks, but there is still room for improvement … We will remain vigilant moving forward to make sure any tracing app remains voluntary and decentralized, and used only for public health purposes and only for the duration of this pandemic.”
Apple hoped to quell concerns in their announcement on their website by saying, “Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders. We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyze.”
It is reasonable to be worried in this day and age about your personal data in this increasingly technological world, but it seems as though this effort by Apple and Google may work solely for the good of the people.