Apple, Google Unveil Test of Coronavirus Contact Tracing API

Technology built into iOS and Android will allow development of contact-tracing apps.

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Need to Know

  • Apple and Google released a beta version of their digital contact tracing software on Wednesday.
  • The apps will provide notifications to users if they have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19
  • User identities are not collected or shared; governments may prefer apps that arm health departments with more data.

Analysis

Apple and Google have released test versions of their contact tracing software, which is aimed at assisting in stopping the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The companies, who first announced their partnership in developing a contact-tracing API, are not themselves developing contract-tracing apps; instead, Google and Apple are integrating new technology into their respective operating systems, Android and iOS, that will enable apps, using Bluetooth, to determine one phone’s distance from another. If a person who uses a contact-tracing app tests positive for COVID-19, other user’s phones that are within a set proximity will send an alert.

The Google-Apple approach does not allow apps to store or share user data; privacy advocates are in favor of the companies’ API. However, individual governments may choose contact-tracing software and apps that allow more robust data collection, so they may share additional information about the virus with health agencies. Germany, for instance, has said it will use the Apple-Google API.

The UK and its health service NHS, however, is developing its own app, testing the app earlier this month. The two are working with Apple and Google but owning the development process.

Contact-tracing has long been eyed as an approach to halting the coronavirus epidemic: evidence from their use in Singapore and South Korea suggests they are helpful in preventing transmission. However, technology experts note there are many technological loopholes that may prevent the approach from being 100% effective. Specifically, users may individually disable their phones’ use of Bluetooth at any time, halting the efficacy of voluntary contact-tracing apps.

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