Apple and Google partner for COVID tracing tool

Engineering teams at Apple and Google have collaborated to create a decentralised contact tracing tool to help individuals determine whether they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Contact tracing is a tool which public health authorities use to track the spread of viruses and inform those potentially exposed so that they can get tested.

The first phase of the project is an Application Programming Interface (API) that public health agencies can integrate into their own apps, to be followed by a system-level contact tracing system that will work across iOS and Android devices on an opt-in basis.

The system uses Bluetooth on devices to transmit anonymous ID over short ranges. Servers relay a users’ last 14 days of IDs to other devices, which search for a match – determined on a threshold of time spent and distance maintained between two devices. If a match is found with another user that has told the system that they have tested positive, the user is notified.

The private proximity contact detection API will be released in mid-May by both Apple and Google. The second phase - bringing it to the operating system level and addressing a much larger spread of users - is planned for the coming months, and would improve battery life, effectiveness and privacy.

The project was started two weeks ago by engineers from both companies, aiming to overcome interoperability issues between systems on different manufacturer’s devices.

Both Apple and Google stated that privacy and transparency are paramount, noting that there is no use of location data, which includes users who report positive. All identification of matches is done on device, allowing users to see - within a 14-day window - whether their device has been near the device of a person who has self-identified as having tested positive for COVID-19.

“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 said in a statement. “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.”

Meanwhile, last week Facebook also committed resources to tackling the Coronavirus pandemic, via its Data for Good programme.

The social media giant announced new types of disease prevention maps to help inform disease forecasting efforts and protective measures, and a prompt on Facebook encouraging people in the US to participate in a voluntary survey from Carnegie Mellon University Delphi Research Center designed to help health researchers identify COVID-19 hotspots earlier.

Movement range trends show at a regional level whether people are staying near home or visiting many parts of town, which can provide insights into whether preventive measures are headed in the right direction, the company explained.

Facebook’s social connectedness index shows friendships across states and countries, which can help epidemiologists forecast the likelihood of disease spread, as well as where areas hardest hit by COVID-19 might seek support.

“COVID-19 has inherent delays that challenge the pace at which we seek to evaluate policy impact towards a measured response,” said Daniel Klein at the Institute for Disease Modeling. “Mobility data from Facebook’s Data for Good program provides a near real-time view of important correlates of disease transmission – this data, in combination with other sources, allows us to make better models to inform public health decisions.”

The Data for Good tools are designed to protect user information, with Facebook setting out public guidelines on how it responds to government requests for data. “We will continue to be transparent about our approach and consult with policymakers, regulators and other privacy experts about our practices,” added a statement.

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