coronavirusUS Department of State

Today, Google and Apple made a rare showing of solidarity by partnering together to help fight the spread of COVID-19. The two companies will help with so-called “contact tracing” by helping coronavirus apps form a location history of infected individuals.

This will be achieved through an application programming interface (API) Google and Apple will introduce soon, with a more rigorous method coming later.

Theoretically, the way it could work is as follows:

  • A person downloads one of the specialized coronavirus apps and other health apps that works with Google and Apple’s upcoming API, which is compatible between both Android phones and iPhones.
  • The app tracks the movements of that individual.
  • When the person contracts the coronavirus, they give that information to one of the apps.
  • Through Google and Apple’s API, the app can then notify anyone who was near that individual (who also has the app installed) that they have possibly been exposed to the virus.

Both Google and Apple say that these contact tracing methods through supported coronavirus apps will keep “user privacy and security central to the design.” Although the API isn’t out yet so we can’t say for certain, it’s likely there will be some form of end-to-end encryption that prevents anyone from knowing the specific names of people who have been infected.

The API that enables this will come sometime in May, according to Google and Apple.

The companies plan to then take contact tracing a step further by enabling “a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform” by building the previously described functionality directly into Android and iOS. This should, theoretically, allow for the method above to work even if people don’t have the required apps (although the companies say you will still need to manually opt-in).

Once again, we haven’t seen any of this in action yet, so how this API works, how Bluetooth will be involved, and which coronavirus apps and health apps will be supported isn’t known at the moment. All we know is that Google and Apple are coming together to make it as easy as possible for developers to use contact tracing to help stop the spread of the disease.

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