By Stephen Nellis and Paresh Dave | Reuters
Apple Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google said on Friday that they will work together to create contact tracing technology that aims to slow the spread of the coronavirus by allowing users to opt into a system that catalogs other phones they have been near.
The rare collaboration between the two Silicon Valley companies, whose operating systems power 99% of the world’s smartphones, could accelerate usage of apps that aim to get potentially infected individuals into testing or quarantine more quickly and reliably than existing systems in much of the world.
The companies said they started developing technology two weeks ago to allow mobile devices to trade information via Bluetooth connections to alert people when they have been in close proximity with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, the sometimes deadly respiratory disease associated with the novel coronavirus.
The technology will first be available in mid-May as software tools available to contact tracing apps endorsed by public health authorities, with Apple and Google approving use of the tools. However, Apple and Google also plan to release software updates in the coming months so that users do not have to download any apps to begin logging nearby phones.
The companies said the technology will not track the location or identity of users, but instead will only capture data about when users’ phones have been near each other, with data being decrypted on the user’s phone rather than the companies’ servers. GPS location data is not part of the effort, the companies said.
Governments worldwide have been scrambling to develop or evaluate software meant to improve the normally labor-intensive process of contact tracing, in which health officials go to recent contacts of an infected person and ask them to self-quarantine or get tested. While health experts have credited extensive testing and contact tracing with slowing the spread of the virus in nations such as South Korea, privacy experts have questioned whether users in the U.S. and Europe would adopt digital contact tracing.
Several health technology experts have said the involvement of Apple and Google would be a massive boost to their efforts, as contact tracing apps from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and others struggled to make their apps work across competing operating systems.
Health experts say that contact tracing and measures to isolate those who have come into contact with infected people will need to be in place to ensure that the virus does not surge back after lockdowns are lifted. But the traditional tracing process is labor intensive and unreliable, requiring health officials to interview people about whom they’ve been in close contact with.
When the system becomes part of users’ phones, they will need to opt-in to use it. They will need to consult with healthcare officials if they either test positive for COVID-19 and want to broadcast that fact to others, or if they receive a notification they have been close to someone who tested positive and need information on what to do next.
However, it was unclear whether the move by Google and Apple would generate global coverage with the technology. Google said the technology will be distributed as part of its Google Play services, which are not available in China or on Android devices that do not use Google’s official version of the operating system.
Apple will distribute the technology as an update to its operating system, which many users enable automatically but not all.