Apple and Google enhance protection for COVID-19 contact-tracing tool; target beta for next week

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Apple & Google strengthen its contract tracing system to better protect privacy.
Photo: Apple/Google

Apple and Google said Friday they are building in stronger privacy protections to their planned contact-tracing system for COVID-19 and that an early version of the initiative will launch for developers next week.

The system is now being referred to as an “exposure notification” technology and not “contact tracing” in an effort to more accurately describes the functionality, according to the two companies.

The system, first announced two weeks ago, adds technology to the iOS and Android operating systems that will alert users if they have come into contact with a person with COVID-19.

New additions enhance privacy

To better address consumer and governmental concerns, the companies changed many of the features of the technology. Changes include an update to the system’s tracking keys by generating secure, random ways to make it more difficult to identify people. The system will now encrypt Bluetooth data, making it more difficult for specific users to be identified by hackers.

Other new features will include shorter reported exposure times, data reports of the power level and signal strength of the Bluetooth signal in the data exchanged between phones, and the number of days since the last exposure to better determine what actions the user should take.

The companies also reiterated an important point. If an unidentified person confirms they tested positive for COVID-19, they will be added to a positive-diagnosis list so the system can notify others they have come into contact with. Additionally, they reiterated that the system does not reveal a user’s identity or location to Apple or Google.

Tools for public health apps to add contact tracing to their own apps will launch publicly in mid-May after an early beta version of the software is released to developers next week. In coming months, the technology will be embedded more deeply into the Apple and Google mobile operating systems so the effort will be less reliant on apps.

Apple said the software update to enable the system will work on devices released in the last four years.

The changes come after the technology has been criticized for potentially sharing too much private health data. Both companies confirmed the long-term plan is to completely shut down the system after it is no longer needed.