• Apple and Google made a major announcement Friday, disclosing their joint work on a contact-tracing service that would eventually use your smartphone to let you know when you’ve come into contact with someone who’s tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus.
  • Both companies stressed that location data and personally identifiable information would not be compromised once this service is fully operational.
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Apple and Google are teaming up to tackle one of the biggest challenges in the fight against the COVID-19 coronavirus — contact-tracing, something the two smartphone giants are launching a system for whereby they’ll eventually send a notification to users’ phones when they’ve come into contact with someone who has the coronavirus.

In a joint announcement Friday, both companies explained how this will work — and how they also say they’re building robust privacy protections into the service. Apple and Google, the announcement explains, “will be launching a comprehensive solution that includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing. Given the urgent need, the plan is to implement this solution in two steps while maintaining strong protections around user privacy.”

What’s coming first is the release in May of APIs that will enable Android and iOS devices to talk to each other via apps from public health authorities — apps that would be available for users to download in both companies’ respective app stores.

Second, at some point after that (“in the coming months”) Apple and Google would launch a contract-tracing platform based on Bluetooth technology that would allow users to participate in this on an opt-in basis, in addition to enabling interaction with a broad range of apps and government health authorities.

This is what all that would look like visually, in terms of how it would all come together to track coronavirus spread:

Image Source: Google

Public officials and health experts have been repeatedly stressing that a return to some degree of normalcy, and opening the country’s economy back up again, depends in large part on strong contact-tracing solutions being made available. So that, once we all start going back out in public again, any cases of the virus that flare up can be quickly hunted down, and the infected people isolated before this all turns into a full-blown crisis again.

“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 announcement concludes. “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.”

Some additional key facts to know about this partnership:

  • Both companies stress they won’t be collecting location data or other personally identifiable information.
  • Both companies are also actually tweaking their mobile operating systems so that, anytime you come in contact with someone as part of this solution, a private key would be exchanged with your smartphone via Bluetooth.
  • Anyone who tests positive for the virus would log that into an app on their phone, at which point two weeks’ worth of people’s phones they’ve come in contact with would get uploaded to a server. If that included you, then at that point you’d get a notification on your phone saying you’ve come into contact with someone who’s tested positive for the virus, and other relevant information would be shared with you, as well.
Andy is a reporter in Memphis who also contributes to outlets like Fast Company and The Guardian. When he’s not writing about technology, he can be found hunched protectively over his burgeoning collection of vinyl, as well as nursing his Whovianism and bingeing on a variety of TV shows you probably don’t like.