In April, Apple and Google announced plans to build new technology into iOS and Android to make it possible to make contact tracing apps, which will track when people have been in close proximity to somebody who has tested positive for coronavirus, and allow public health officials to notify them that they might have been exposed. The system, which uses the Bluetooth short-range wireless technology built into both operating systems, is likely to power efforts by governments around the world’s efforts to use signals picked up from smartphones to alert people who may have been exposed to someone infected with Covid-19.
Apple Inc. and Google said that they are putting stronger privacy protections in their upcoming contact-tracing tool for Covid-19 and that an early version will launch for developers
- What privacy-preserving coronavirus tracing apps need to succeed
- Apple and Google’s APIs will launch in the coming weeks. The companies previously said they hope to launch in mid-May.
Two weeks ago, the companies unveiled the system, which uses Bluetooth to determine if users have recently been in close proximity to someone with the coronavirus. Among the changes announced Friday
the companies changed the terminology they’re using to describe the system, calling it “exposure notification,” as opposed to “contact tracing.” They did this to differentiate it from traditional contact tracing practices in public health organizations, which rely on people to make lots of phone calls to warn people that they may have been exposed to someone with Covid-19.
Technical changes to Apple and Google’s system on Friday include:
- It can now share the strength and duration of a Bluetooth signal so that the apps can make a better judgment of who someone has been in contact with.
- It can now alert people about the number of days since they were potentially exposed.
- The security around random keys and the way the system handles Bluetooth metadata has been improved.
Dozens of nations are already using some form of surveillance for contact tracing. In countries including Hungary, leaders used the crisis as an excuse to seize additional powers by enacting emergency laws. In some places, civil liberty organizations have labeled compulsory location tracking apps draconian or warned of the end of privacy. Epidemiologists who are calling for more surveillance are stoking these fears. World Health Organization (WHO) executive director Dr. Michael Ryan recently insisted that surveillance coupled with testing must be part of the return to normal life in many places. Privacy advocates fear that governments will take away personal liberties in the name of fighting COVID-19 and will never give them back.
Google and Apple plan to release the technology in two phases. In the first phase, slated for mid-May, the two companies will build the technology into Android and iOS, but it will require a user to download an app. In the second step, the technology will be more deeply integrated into the operating system so people won’t have to download a separate application to begin participating.