Earlier today, Apple and Google announced a Bluetooth-based COVID-19 contact tracing platform that could alert people if they have been exposed to coronaviruses. Contact tracing is a significant component in ending the mass epidemic “at home” order, and while phone tracking cannot replace traditional methods like interviews, it can complement them, and how to use Coronavirus tracking tool.
Google and Apple are using Bluetooth Lay signals for contact tracing. When two people are close to each other, their phones can exchange an anonymous identification key, recording that they have had close contact. If a person later discovers COVID-19, they can share that information through the app. The system will notify other users who have been close to them, so those people can quarantine themselves if necessary. Ideally, this means that you will not have to reveal your name, location or other personal data.
Beyond those basics, however, there are a lot of questions about how people will use the system. Here’s what we know so far.
The first phase is app-based, and it starts next month
Apple and Google are launching the program in two phases, starting with an application programming interface (API) in mid-May. This API will make sure iOS and Android apps can trace users regardless of which operating system they’re using. But it will be restricted to official apps released by public health authorities on the iOS App Store and Google Play Store.
During this first phase, you’ll need one of these apps to participate in the program. We don’t know who’s working with Apple and Google right now, or what the apps will look like. It seems likely they’ll be interoperable in some way — in other words, a phone with App A could swap a key with App B, as long as they’re both using the API. We could hypothetically see a national government or lots of small local agencies launch their own apps, or governments could approve something built by an outside party like a university. Google and Apple haven’t publicly nailed down many specifics, so we’ll be watching for those in the coming weeks.
No matter what the apps look like, you’ll have to proactively add them to your phone, which will almost certainly reduce how many people use them. But in the months after the launch, Google and Apple will be working on a more permanent solution.
The second phase adds opt-in tracking to iOS and Android
Following the API, Google and Apple want to add contact tracing as a core iOS and Android feature. The method is a little vague for now, but the goal is that you’d opt-in through something like your phone settings. This would turn on the digital key-swapping without requiring a third-party app. Then, if you’re exposed, your phone would signal this somehow and urge you to download an app for more information.
This raises a few questions. We don’t know much about that handoff process, for instance: do you get a vague pop-up notification or something with more detail? We’re also not sure how Android’s fragmented ecosystem might complicate the release. Google could plausibly push a fast update through the Play Store instead of waiting for carriers to roll it out. However, it would still be dealing with considerable variations in hardware capability. We also don’t know if individual government apps might ask for more invasive permissions like location tracking — even if Google and Apple’s core system doesn’t use it.
If you’ve got a phone without Bluetooth LE, of course, none of these apps will work. But iOS has included support since the 2011 iPhone 4S, and the Android platform added support in 2012. So unless you’ve got an old phone, you’re probably all right.
What happens if you’re infected?
If you test positive for COVID-19, the system is supposed to upload your last 14 days of anonymous “keys” to a server. Other people’s phones will automatically download the essential lists, and if they have a matching key in their history, they’ll get an exposure notification.
The app will need to make sure people are infected, though — otherwise, a troll could cause chaos by falsely claiming to have COVID-19. We don’t know exactly how this will work. COVID-19 tests are currently administered by professionals and logged with health authorities, so perhaps Apple and Google could piggyback on that process to validate the tests. But it’s a huge issue, and they’ll need a satisfactory answer.
Either way, sharing your keys is supposed to be voluntary. That seems to mean actually approving an upload, not just granting blanket consent when you install the app — but the exact process is another thing we’re waiting to see.
What happens if you’re exposed?
If people share their data described above, your phone will check the list once a day and look for significant matches, then notify you if it finds one. Google’s sample warning is straightforward: it just reads, “You have recently been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19,” and provides a link with more information. This information will be provided by whichever health authority the app is offering, and we do not know what it may contain — although, at the very least, it will probably explain COVID-19 symptoms and self-quarantine guidelines.
Exposure is not a simple binary process: the more time you spend with an infected person, the higher the risk. The document contains references to the duration measured in 5-minute intervals. It could theoretically send that information directly to users, or it could provide a general risk assessment without an exact number, which would give a higher level of anonymity.
As we have said before, none of this replaces traditional contact tracing interviews. Corrected, however, it can add a platform-level system that is easy to use and does not overly compromise privacy. We are still waiting on a lot of details about how this will work.
Get the best of The Thus delivered to your inbox – subscribe to The Thus Newsletters. For the latest News follow The Thus on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest and stay in the know with what’s happening in the world around you – in real-time.