Apple and Google, the makers of the two most pervasive smartphone operating systems on the planet, announced this afternoon that they are collaborating on contact-tracing tools to track the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Contact tracing is exactly what it sounds like: tracing who an infected person came into contact with.
In the short term, the two companies will work on “application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing.” In layman’s terms, this is software that will allow Android and iOS devices to talk to each other and create a log of devices they came within range of. Someone who is infected would then be able to use an app from unspecified “public-health authorities” as a way to indirectly notify device owners who they came in contact with. Those APIs and health apps are slated for release next month.
In the longer term, Apple and Google are working on Bluetooth–based contact tracing built directly into each of their mobile operating systems, making it easier to perform more universal contact tracing without specific apps.
Contact-tracing apps have already been deployed in countries like Singapore, where 620,000 people downloaded TraceTogether. The software uses Bluetooth to determine who was within two meters of coronavirus patients for at least half an hour. Last month, Singapore’s government released the source code for the app to the public so other countries could put it to use.
There are obvious privacy implications for developing technology that tracks not just geographic positioning but also the relative locations and relationships between specific individuals. In the United States, governments are already using location data from cell phone providers to track how people are moving around and possibly spreading the disease. Google has already been aggregating location data to find trends related to the coronavirus. What is beneficial to the public in times of crisis, however, can easily be appropriated for surveillance.
Apple and Google have stressed that “privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort.” To that end, the companies have already released technical specifications outlining how they plan to preserve privacy while aggregating data. Given Tim Cook’s past statements criticizing Facebook’s privacy practices and Apple’s work building anti-tracker features directly into Safari, they’re probably the Big Tech companies I’d trust most to work on a system like this.