Apple and Google team up to build COVID-19 contact tracing apps

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Apple and Google join forces using Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Apple and Google join forces using Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Photo: Apple/Google

In a rare moment of collaboration, Apple and Google said Friday they have teamed up to create a contact-tracing program that uses smartphones to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The privacy-focused solution created by the companies will use anonymous Bluetooth “chirps” from phones as a way to tell where an infected person has been and who they’ve come in contact with.

“All of us at Apple and Google believe there has never been a more important moment to work together to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems,” the companies said in a press release. “Through close cooperation and collaboration with developers, governments and public health providers, we hope to harness the power of technology to help countries around the world slow the spread of COVID-19 and accelerate the return of everyday life.”

Contact-tracing programs have been effective in some countries to thwart the coronavirus spread. However, privacy advocates worry that the data generated by such systems could be misused.

How does contact tracing work?

Apple and Google say they will launch a solution that includes application programming interfaces and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing. They plan to roll out the solution in two steps to make sure all the privacy protections are in place.

The system sounds very similar to what researchers at MIT proposed Thursday. All the Bluetooth chirps your phone sends and receives are stored on your phone. Whenever someone tests positive for COVID-19, health officials can anonymously upload their chirps to a database. Everyone’s smartphones then scan the database every day to see if the device encountered an infected chirp within the last 14 days.

Watch this explainer video to get a better idea:

When will contact-tracing apps become available?

Pushing out a project of this magnitude to enough people for it to make a difference is going to be a colossal task. The plan is for both companies to release an API in May that works between Android and iOS devices, using apps from public health authorities.

A few months after that, Apple and Google plan to enable Bluetooth-based contact tracing on their underlying platforms. The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to spike sometime this summer (as far as confirmed cases go). But some health experts worry that a second wave of the outbreak could hit in the fall. The tools Apple and Google are building also should prove useful if another pandemic breaks out in the future.

Worldwide, there are more than 1.65 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 with more than 100,350 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. In the United States, there are over 475,800 confirmed cases and more than 17,900 deaths.