Apple, Google give first look at coronavirus tracking tech


Apple and Google are working together on technology to help alert people when they may have been exposed to coronavirus.

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Apple and Google moved a step closer to releasing a coronavirus tracking technology Monday, showing off what an app may look like on people’s phones and also sharing sample pieces of code for local governments.

The contact tracing technology, which the two companies have been working on for more than a month, is designed to help people alert one another if someone they were in contact with over the past 14 days comes down with coronavirus. When the project was first announced, Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google head Sundar Pichai promised the technology would be built with privacy in mind. 

In the examples Apple and Google offered for the tracking technology, the two companies showed how people will be able to opt-in to the system and turn on notifications in case they’re exposed to someone confirmed to have coronavirus. The companies also showed how health officials will be able to confirm a person’s diagnosis with coronavirus by typing a special code into the patient’s phone. Once they do, the patient will be asked whether they want to anonymously warn people they’d been in contact with over the past two weeks.

Apple Google exposure notification 1

The companies say they expect to work with public health officials around the world on exposure notification apps.

Apple and Google

The technology identifies people a patient may have been near by helping Apple iPhones or devices powered by Google’s Android software communicate with one another by using Bluetooth radio that’s built into phones. If someone then is diagnosed with coronavirus, a health official or doctor could enter a code into their phone, which would then send out a new signal alerting all the phones they’d come in contact with over the preceding 14 days.

Apple and Google will release the project later this year, offering it for about 2 billion phones around the world. In the mean time, the companies are sharing code and releasing test versions of their iOS and Android operating software to help health officials get started. Apple The companies have since said they will encourage health officials to build only one app per country, to keep people from getting confused about which apps to use. Apple and Google say that will encourage wider adoption as well.

Apple’s and Google’s efforts are just the latest ways big tech companies have been working to help fight the coronavirus, which has killed nearly 250,000 people around the world, and infected more than 3.5 million people, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Verily, the life sciences arm of Google parent company Alphabet, last month launched a website that gives people in California information about virus testing. The website, developed in partnership with the White House, lets people fill in symptoms and complete an online screener. Apple as well has built a website and app to help inform people about the coronavirus. 

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Both companies have also added prominent links to coronavirus information in their respective news aggregation apps and homepages. And the two companies have both also begun making and distributing protective equipment for health care workers.

On Monday, the two companies also discussed how they will control who has access to the technology and how the companies will ensure people’s privacy. The companies said in a call with journalists that they will now allow health officials to collect location information or run targeted ads in the app.

Example of Apple Google doctor confirmation coronavirus

In this example, Apple and Google show how a doctor confirms an exposure to coronavirus and alerts people the patient had been in contact with.

Apple and Google

Public refinements

Apple and Google began sharing details about their project together about two weeks after it began, an unusual move for the notoriously secretive companies. The companies have also held regular calls with the press, taking questions from the press and answering privacy concerns, questions about how the system will work and how they’ll get people to use it.

The biggest changes Apple and Google made since initially announcing the system last month was to privacy protections after security experts and journalists raised concerns about how the technology will work. Apple and Google said last month that they’ve changed the encryption technology, which scrambles any identifying information to ensure people can’t be tracked. The companies also said they’ll protect potentially identifiable information too, such as what model of phone they’re using and the signal strength of their transmissions.

The companies have also changed the name of the system. Initially, it was referred to as “contact tracing” technology. Contact tracing historically is a process where health officials attempt to find anyone who a confirmed infected patient may have come in contact with and exposed. Apple and Google’s system could help to automate that, but analysts noted that the name “contact tracing” could make some users anxious about how their information is being used by these companies and whether their phones might be used as a tool for mass state surveillance

Apple and Google have since renamed the system “exposure notification.”

Uncertain usage

The big question no one seems to have the answer to is how many people will opt in to the system when it launches later this year. Apple and Google representatives said that since nothing like this has been tried at such a large scale before, the companies also don’t know what minimum number of people need to sign up for the system to work.

There are signs some people want to use these apps though. More than 2 million people downloaded a contact tracing app in Australia, called COVIDsafe, within days of its launch a couple weeks ago. Though it’s not built using Apple or Google’s new exposure notification system, it uses similar technology. And in India, health officials have mandated that workers download the app released in that country.

Apple and Google said to speed the use of their technology, health officials will be able to build apps for their countries on their own or use white-label code offered to them, the companies said. That, along with Apple and Google’s promises of interoperability, may help it gain wider adoption.

Apple and Google said they plan to continue regularly publishing changes to their technology on their respective websites and in future calls with the press.

CNET’s Richard Nieva contributed to this report.

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