Google and Apple Partner on Contact Tracing

By: Henry Rademacher

As part of their efforts to help governments respond to COVID-19, Google and Apple announced earlier this month that they are partnering on a project to “enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of (COVID-19), with user privacy and security central to the design.”

While location tracking is not a new technology, this project intends to use it for a different purpose than its common applications. Because COVID-19 is “transmitted through close proximity to affected individuals,” contact tracing has the potential to reduce new transmissions by providing the public with information about areas that are COVID-19 hotspots. In theory, people who use the technology will be able to know whether or not they have been in contact with afflicted individuals.

Any large-scale initiative that tracks peoples’ locations will raise privacy concerns. Therefore, Google and Apple are working to assure that the program is designed and implemented with strong privacy protections. Users of Android and IoS will have the choice whether or not to opt-in to the program. It will not be mandatory for everyone who owns a cellphone. Unlike GPS tracking, contact tracing does not track users’ physical locations. Instead it tracks signals emitted from users’ cellphones, enabling the compilation of databases of which cellphones have been in close proximity to infected individuals.

The information that is sent out through the app is broadcast through an “anonymous key rather than a static interface.” This enables users to remain anonymous while using the app. Crucially, the program will feature state of the art encryption technology, with data signals, Rolling Proximity Identifiers, and Dailey Tracing Keys all being encrypted multiple times throughout the day.

There are multiple ways that location tracking could help end the COVID-19 crisis. It will enable individuals to make informed decisions about which locations are safe and which ones are not. It will also allow governments to make better informed decisions about which areas to allocate resources to.

If location tracking delivers on its significant potential, it could be a major factor in the U.S. economy eventually opening up again. Everyone wants things to go back to normal. But authorities agree that the U.S. is not close yet. Public health officials still do not have enough information about COVID-19 to put a solid timeline on when social distancing can end. Information is the thing that health officials need the most and contact tracing could end up giving them some of the most valuable information available. It contact tracing can reduce the spread of COVID-19, while also allowing governments and health officials to better understand the dynamics of the situation, it could result in the U.S. being open for business sooner than it would be otherwise.

Photo credit: Maurizio Pesce (Flickr)