Google, Apple to Release New Coronavirus Tracking System for iOS, Android

Apple and Google are working on a way to help public health officials trace possible COVID-19 coronavirus contacts between users, with strong protections and controls for user privacy.
Brad Bergan
Image formatted to fit. Company Announcements / Google

Apple and Google have announced they are developing a new system to track the spread of the novel coronavirus, which will help users share data via Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) transmissions, and other apps approved by health organizations, according to a Google blog post.


Apple and Google to build new coronavirus tracing apps

The new tracking system — which is explained in a series of blog posts — will use short-range communications via Bluetooth to establish voluntary networks that trace recent contacts and archive extensive data on phones that have been in close proximity to one another, reports The Verge. Apps put out by public health authorities will also have full access to the data, and users who download the apps may report if they have been diagnosed with the COVID-19 illness. The new tracking system will also alert those who downloaded them to check if they've been in close contact with an infected person.

Google and Apple will introduce the pair of APIs for Android and iOS in mid-May, in hopes of giving health authorities' apps time to prepare to implement them. In the following months, both companies will work on building new tracing functionality into the underlying operating system, and will then allow users to decide whether they wish to share their health information among a wider range of apps.

UPDATE April 10, 1:00 PM EDT: Privacy concerns amid coronavirus tracing

One of the most promising solutions for containing the COVID-19 outbreak is contact tracing. But there's a catch: this kind of monitoring is often seen as invasive, and thus raises serious worries about privacy.

Other tracking methods — like GPS — track people's physical location, but this new tracking method won't. According to The Verge, it'll receive signals of nearby phones at five-minute intervals, and store the connections between them in a big database. If a user tests positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus, they can tell the app that they've contracted the illness, and it will notify all other users whose phones have passed within close proximity in the last several days.

The new system will also take multiple steps to keep people from being identified against their will, even after they've shared their data. While the app checks-in via Bluetooth like clockwork, all information sent is done with an anonymous key, instead of a static identity. Additionally, those keys re-cycle every 15 minutes in the interest of privacy.

Even after a user shares their infected status, the app will only share keys during the period for which they were contagious, according to The Verge. The device (iOS or Android) performs all of the cryptographic calculation, with central servers only holding a database of shared keys. Consequently, there will be no centrally-accessible master list of which phones have matched, contagious or not.

However, there's still a weakness in the method. In crowded places, the system might flag people in adjacent rooms who in reality aren't sharing space with ill users, at all. Unfounded worry could abound without merit. Additionally, the system might not capture the nuance of duration in exposure — walking by a coronavirus-positive user doesn't compare to spending a day next to an infected coworker.

The program is also novel, which means Google and Apple are still in talks with public health authorities and other stakeholders, to narrow down how to run the system. It likely can't take the place of older methods of tracing human contact, which usually involve interviews of infected people about where they've been, and who they've been near. However, it might give the world a high-tech emergency supplement to devices already owned by billions globally in a time of COVID-19.

This is breaking news, so be sure to return here for more developments.

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