UK’s National Health Service to use Apple-Google API in contact tracing app

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The UK's National Health Service will use Apple/Google technology to warn users if they've recently been in contact with someone suspected to be infected with coronavirus.
Photo: NHS

Great Britain’s National Health Service has confirmed plans to use joint contact tracing technology developed by Apple and Google in an upcoming app to warn users if they have been near someone suspected of being infected with COVID-19.

Apple and Google announced Friday they are working together on Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus worldwide.

The BBC reported Sunday that the British health service’s digital innovation unit, NHSX, was not aware of the joint Apple-Google project before it was announced on Friday, but that it now plans to integrate their technology into its app.

Britain’s health secretary Matt Hancock said the NHS was “working closely with the world’s leading tech companies” on the initiative.

The BBC has learned that NHSX will test a pre-release version of the software with families at a secure location in the North of England next week.

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 last Thursday. All the Bluetooth chirps a mobile phone sends and receives are stored on the 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.

This explainer video describes the technology in detail…

When will contact-tracing apps become available?

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

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 1.86 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 with more than 115,200 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. In the United States, there are over 557,600 confirmed cases and more than 22,100 deaths.