Apple and Google announced on Friday that the two technology giants are going to work together to enable the use of Bluetooth in order for governments and health agencies to carry out contact tracing of people affected by coronavirus in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19, while keeping privacy and security in the forefront, according to a release issued by the companies.
The note, available here, describes how Apple and Google, are going to design privacy preserving contact tracing. Apple and Google described it as a comprehensive solution that includes Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), and operating system level technology. The two companies are releasing technical documentation of Bluetooth specifications, cryptography specifications, and a framework API for contact tracing.
The note states:
Given the urgent need, the plan is to implement this solution in two steps while maintaining strong protections around user privacy.
First, in May, both companies will release APIs that enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. These official apps will be available for users to download via their respective app stores.
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. This is a more robust solution than an API and would allow more individuals to participate, if they choose to opt in, as well as enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities. 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.
“All of us at Apple and Google believe there has never been a more important moment to work together to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems,” the companies added in the release. “Through close cooperation and collaboration with developers, governments and public health providers, we hope to harness the power of technology to help countries around the world slow the spread of COVID-19 and accelerate the return of everyday life.”
Contact Tracing is an important part of reducing the spread of the COVID-19, by identifying the people who have been infected by coronavirus, and all the people that they have come into contact with, who could in turn be potentially infected as well.
Most governments around the world have deployed different apps for COVID-19 contact tracing, with many states and also the central government having their own apps, although people have asked questions about the privacy concerns that such apps raise.
According to Apple, “The Contact Detection Service is the vehicle for implementing contact tracing and uses the Bluetooth LE (Low Energy) for proximity detection of nearby smartphones, and for the data exchange mechanism.”
In its cryptography specifications, the company outlines the measures taken to protect user privacy while enabling tracing. The companies noted: “the Contact Tracing Bluetooth Specification does not require the user’s location; any use of location is completely optional to the schema. In any case, the user must provide their explicit consent in order for their location to be optionally used.”
Users also have to consent to contact tracing, and if diagnosed with COVID-19, the user has to consent to sharing this information as well — there are also defined measures to protect the privacy of users through cryptography, which should prevent any third parties from obtaining this information without consent.