29 April 2020
Google and Apple have announced that they are coming together to develop a contact tracing technology to protect people who come in close proximity of COVID-19 infected patients. Also, health agencies and governments will make use of this technology to reduce the spread of Coronavirus.
This joint effort will use Bluetooth Low Energy technology and alert people if they have had any close contact with an affected person. Thus the people who came in contact can self-quarantine themselves if necessary (considering if they develop similar symptoms, of course). According to the press releases shared by both Apple and Google, this platform is launching in two phases.
In May, both the companies will release APIs that enable interoperability between Android and iOS so as to make the platform works regardless of which operating system customers are using. But the program will be restricted to official apps released by public health authorities on the App Store and Play Store. So, you’d need to be the part of any one of those apps to participate in the program and trace users around. Currently, both the companies haven’t disclosed the name of those apps but we are likely to hear about them soon since the first phase is going official next month only.
In the second phase, both companies promise that a more permanent solution will come. It will be a core feature of their respective operating systems – iOS and Android. Being a built-in feature of the OS, you’d need to enable it using Settings. Thus it would not require any third-party app installation. If a possible exposure is traced, your phone would signal this to you, unlike the first phase where the app does the work.
The overview of COVID-19 Contact Tracing by Google’s documents briefly elaborates on the working of the platform with the help of an example. Understand there is a person with the name Bob who is diagnosed with COVID-19. He would need to enter the test result in an app from a public health authority. Now, if that person meets other people around his vicinity, then their phones will exchange some identifier beacons using Bluetooth Low Energy tech. This will continue for 14 days (since the incubation period is 14 days) and the phone of the infected person will continue to exchange keys with people he meets with. His phone will then upload the last 14 days of keys to the cloud.
Meanwhile, the phones of the people who came in contact with Bob in those 14 days will periodically download the broadcast beacon keys of everyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 in their region. And if the keys match to that of an infected person, their phone will alert them that they have recently been exposed to someone who has tested for COVID-19. The people who came in contact will then receive a notification with information about what to do next.
The announcement does not disclose specifics but they do have shared the white papers to learn some technical details on the COVID-19 Contact Tracing program. Also, while sharing the details, both the companies stress that Contact Tracing preserves privacy throughout the process. The Contact Tracing does not use the location for proximity detection, rather it strictly uses Bluetooth beaconing to detect proximity. Also, the apps can only get more information only with user consent.
The platform looks promising and will be really beneficial to identify and reduce the spread of Coronavirus at the same time. But the whole process depends on adding the test result to the supported app by the infected user. This is something everyone should be vigilant about.