Apple and Google Team Up With Contact Tracing for COVID-19

The tech giants say they're mindful of your privacy

Two tech giants coming together to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus is a big deal, but it may come with some privacy concerns.

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Update: According to TechCrunch, Google and Apple have now released an initial version of their joint contact tracing API, now known as exposure notification API. It's strictly for developers at public health agencies to begin integrating the API into their own apps.

Apple and Google have announced their partnership for a new opt-in Contact Tracing API system, which will potentially help stop the spread of COVID-19 by notifying you if you've come near someone who's been exposed.

How this works: Basically, contact tracing is a WHO-endorsed way of alerting people if they've been in contact with a person who has, or has been exposed to, an infectious agent, like the novel coronavirus or Ebola.

In this current system that's still in development, you'd have to tell your phone if you have been exposed to COVID-19. Then, other phones using the system would share that info with nearby devices. This data would then go to public health authorities, who would then alert those other phones they've been potentially exposed.

The plan is to roll out a system in two phases, one as an API that apps can use on either Android or iOS devices, and then a more integrated approach.

Privacy: Obviously, there are a host of privacy issues here. Google promises that explicit user consent is required, the system will not collect personally identifiable information or location data, that the list of people you've been in contact with never leaves your phone, and that those that test positive won't be identified to other users. The information itself will only be transmitted to public health authorities to help manage the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, as The Verge points out, crowded areas could potentially create false positives in such a system, so there are some issues to work out.

Bottom Line: This could be a good first step towards helping people know if or when they've been exposed to the novel coronavirus. If you get an alert, you can self-isolate and seek treatment, thus flattening the curve. Given that it will work across mobile operating systems should also help its adoption.

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