Apple and Google are working together on a new technology to track the spread of the coronavirus using Bluetooth.
Users who opt in would be able to receive alerts if they have might have come into contact with an infected person.
Both companies have reiterated that the system was being designed with privacy in mind.
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Google and Apple on Friday announced a joint effort to help governments and health agencies track the spread of the coronavirus through Bluetooth technology.
The new Bluetooth protocol, which the companies are calling Contact Tracing, could alert participants via their smartphone if they might have come into contact with an infected person, Apple’s white paper said.
The partnership would enable iOS and Android devices to communicate using apps from public-health authorities. The companies said they would do this by releasing a set of application programming interfaces, or APIs, in May that would enable interoperability between Android and iOS.
Apple and Google said that in the coming months they would also build a broader, more robust platform for tracking the spread through Bluetooth technology that users could opt in to.
Both companies said the tools would be built with user privacy in mind.
Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a tweet on Friday that this would be executed in a way that honors “transparency” and “consent.”
Apple’s white paper said the user’s location would not be required for the technology to work. The document also said that proximity identifiers would be changed every 15 minutes, meaning it would be unlikely that a user’s location would be tracked via Bluetooth over extended periods. It reiterated that users must opt in to the contact-tracing protocol.
Similarly, Google’s white paper said that explicit user consent would be required and that it would not collect personally identifiable information or location data. The company also said the list of people you’ve been in contact with would never leave your phone.
The technology sounds similar to the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing project, or PEPP-PT, an initiative created by more than 130 European scientists and technologists to use smartphones’ Bluetooth low-energy signals to detect who has been exposed and alert people accordingly.
It’s an unprecedented move for the two tech giants, which have traditionally competed against each other, especially in the smartphone industry. The project is also the latest effort by Apple and Google to devote resources toward combatting the coronavirus pandemic.
Google has launched a mobility report that compiles aggregate, anonymized data from Google Maps to help public-health officials better understand people’s movements in response to stay-at-home orders. Apple has begun designing and producing face shields for medical workers and said it would donate 20 million protective face masks, while Amazon has been building a COVID-19 testing lab for its employees.
The coronavirus has spread to nearly all countries and territories around the world. As of Friday, there were more than 1.5 million confirmed cases and 95,000 deaths globally. In the US, there were more than 460,000 cases and 16,000 deaths.
The coronavirus’ spread has been particularly difficult to monitor because it is highly contagious and it can take several days before symptoms show. There’s also been limited availability of testing in the United States – which has seen the biggest outbreak of any region in the world – and has meant that many cases go unreported.