Just when you were wondering why the world’s biggest tech companies weren’t doing more to fight the coronavirus pandemic, Apple and Google made a big announcement: They are joining forces to build an opt-in contact-tracing tool using Bluetooth technology that could help public health officials track the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The new tool brings with it not only hope for a quicker end to the pandemic, but also a host of privacy and security concerns.
The contact-tracing tool Apple and Google want to create would have your smartphone log when you’ve come into close contact with other people. If one of those people later reports Covid-19 symptoms to a public health authority, your phone would send you an alert. It works a bit like exchanging contact information with everyone you meet, except everything is designed to be anonymous and automatic. Instead of contact info, your smartphone will periodically exchange anonymized tracing keys with nearby devices. Both devices maintain a list of the keys they’ve collected on a cloud server, and when one person reports an infection, they have the option of sending an alert to people they’ve recently been in contact with. That alert will share information for what those people should do next.
Those are the broad strokes of what’s sure to be a very complex public-health-focused surveillance system. It represents an unprecedented partnership between two competing tech giants, one that could forever change the way our devices talk to each other. (Apple and Google say that the new contact-tracing tool will work between iPhones and Android phones.) The Bluetooth-based approach also draws on beacon technology that’s already in use in retail environments — and is already a concern for privacy advocates. Understanding the privacy and security implications of this new coronavirus contact-tracing technology will take time, but based on what we know now, the tool will start rolling out soon.
How it’s built
An important thing to understand about this system is that Apple and Google aren’t doing this by themselves. The two companies are building a set of tools, known as an application programming interface (API), that lets iOS and Android apps communicate with each other.
In the first phase of the tool’s release, which will start around mid-May, Google and Apple will release the APIs so that public health authorities can then build apps that will be publicly available in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. People can choose to download those apps — and again, these apps will let iPhones and Android phones talk to each other.
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