Apple, Google team up on COVID-19 contact tracing via smartphone apps

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Since COVID-19 can be transmitted through close proximity to affected individuals, public health officials have identified contact tracing as a valuable tool to help contain its spread. (achinthamb/Shutterstock)

Tech giants Google and Apple are working together to create contact tracing technology to help in the fight against COVID-19.

Through the joint effort, Google and Apple will be able to notify people via smartphone if they've come into contact with someone with the coronavirus.

The technology will work on an opt-in basis without compromising user privacy, the companies said in an announcement Friday.

It marks an unprecedented step for the two tech giants to collaborate on a high-tech approach to track coronavirus cases.

Since COVID-19 can be transmitted through close proximity to affected individuals, public health officials have identified contact tracing as a valuable tool to help contain its spread. Contact tracing involves figuring out who an infected person has been in contact with and trying to prevent them from infecting others.

Using digital surveillance technology to do it, such as GPS data, raises significant privacy concerns. 

Unlike some methods, Apple and Google's Bluetooth plan wouldn’t track people’s physical location but would basically pick up the signals of nearby phones at five-minute intervals and store the connections between them in a database, according to The Verge. If one person tests positive for the novel coronavirus, they could tell the app they’ve been infected, and it could notify other people whose phones passed within close range in the preceding days.

Healthcare leaders quickly championed the partnership to create contact tracing as a game changer in the effort to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

RELATED: Apple teams up with CDC and White House to roll out COVID mobile app and website

Eric Topol, M.D., a physician-scientist and founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, tweeted Friday, "We don't have the public health staff to do COVID-19 contact tracing at scale. But this digital method, relying on smartphone chirps, preserving privacy, might be just what's needed."

Andy Slavitt, former Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services administrator, tweeted Friday, "Strong privacy protections-but I hope everyone opts in for one another."

A number of leading public health authorities, universities and NGOs around the world have been doing important work to develop opt-in contact tracing technology, Apple and Google said in a statement.

"To further this cause, Apple and Google will be launching a comprehensive solution that includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing. Given the urgent need, the plan is to implement this solution in two steps while maintaining strong protections around user privacy," the companies said.

RELATED: Gottlieb, Mostashari propose national COVID-19 surveillance system

As a first step, both companies will introduce a pair of Android and iOS APIs in May that enable interoperability between their devices using apps from public health authorities. These official apps will be available for users to download via their respective app stores.

In the coming months, the companies will work to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms.

This is a more robust solution than an API and would allow more individuals to participate if they choose to opt in, the companies said.

This approach also will enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities. 

"Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders. We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyze," Google and Apple officials said.

Both Apple and Google posted on their websites a series of documents and white papers with specifications on how the technology works and how it protects users' privacy.

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