Apple, Google team up to track spread of COVID-19 using iPhone, Android apps

Coronavirus

Apple and Google announced a partnership on Friday in which the two companies will work together to provide tools that will help track the spread of coronavirus.

Apple said both companies will launch developer tools (called APIs) in May that will “enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities.” The apps will launch on the iTunes App Store and the Google Play Store.

Experts have started to call on the private sector to help follow the spread of coronavirus using so-called “syndromic surveillance,” a technique that can be used to track pandemics. Tech companies are particularly well positioned to do it, since most people in the U.S. own a phone where apps can be installed. And because government funding for syndromic surveillance has dried up.

“Google and Apple are announcing a joint effort to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design,” a press release announcing the partnership said.

Bluetooth can be used to track the location of a phone, often with smaller Bluetooth beacons that are able to provide a more accurate position than a cellular signal or GPS. The tools from Apple and Google will enable app makers to use Bluetooth to let people know when they’ve come into contact with someone who has been diagnosed with coronavirus, a process called contact tracing.

Both Android and iOS allow you to monitor which apps have access to your location using Bluetooth and let you turn off tracking. It’s unclear right now if the apps will trace locations or instead simply trace if one person infected with coronavirus comes in contact with another person.

“Second, in the coming months, Apple and Google will work to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms,” Apple said in a press release.

Importantly, this is opt-in contract tracing, which means users will need to agree to be tracked if they want to participate. Contact tracing can allow health officials to monitor the spread of coronavirus by seeing who has been in close contact with infected people.

Apps have been used in other countries, like Singapore, where phones with contact tracing apps record encounters between people and store data in phones for 21 days. In Singapore, Bluetooth signals record when people are near one another but the locations of folks using the app is not collected.

“Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders. We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyze,” the companies said.

On March 27, Apple announced a COVID-19 screening website and app that it built with the CDC and the White House. It doesn’t provide tests, but asks a series of questions about risk factors, recent exposure and symptoms. Then, it provides a recommendation on what people should do next. It also teamed up with Stanford on an app that connects first repsonders to drive-through COVID-19 tests.

Alphabet’s Verily also has a site that directs people to local testing locations in the San Francisco area, including San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. Separately, Google has its own COVID-19 informational site. It also helped New York State create an online unemployment application. Google is also already helping public health officials to track whether social distancing mandates are being followed.

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