Part of what makes COVID-19 dangerous is the way it spreads from person to person — you don’t need to be showing symptoms to be contagious, and that can make it difficult to know how or when you got the disease or who you may have come in contact with since then that may also be at risk.

Now Google and Apple have announced they’re working together on a technological solution that may make it easier to track the spread of the disease and alert individuals if they may have been exposed by using the Bluetooth features of your smartphone.

The two companies says they’ll release APIs in May that public health officials can use to develop contact-tracing apps that are compatible with both Android and iOS.

It’ll still be up to users to decide whether to download and install those apps. On the one hand, the more people that use them, the more accurate the contact tracing is likely to be. But it will be an opt-in program so folks who are more concerned about the privacy implications of such a large-scale tracking system can choose not to participate by… doing nothing at all.

Later this year Google and Apple say they plan to build Bluetooth-based contact tracing “into the underlying platforms” of their respective operating systems in a way that the companies say “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.”

If you want to dive into some of the technical details, the companies have released some initial documentation:

Earlier this week researchers at MIT had announced their own solution that would use smartphones for contact-tracing. But the new initiative from Google and Apple is likely to have more widespread reach since the companies are behind the world’s two most popular smartphone operating systems.

Either way, it’ll be up to public health authorities and the public to figure out how best to make use of whatever tools are available as the pandemic continues. For an idea of how contact tracing has been used to help slow the spread of COVID-19, check out Derek Thompson’s recent article for the Atlantic that explains how it’s already being used in South Korea.

via Hacker News

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5 Comments

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  1. An important detail has been revealed:
    It looks like you’ll be getting this automatically through Google Play if you have Android 6.0 and up whether you choose to download anything or not.
    https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/13/21220033/android-covid-19-tracking-updates-google-play-contact-tracing
    What you’ll be getting is the basic functionality that identifies your phone to all other phones. Which I can’t presume they’ll really let you opt out of if they’re being this aggressive about it. You’ll still need to download a separate app to see if a nearby phone was flagged as “undesirable”.
    If you want to escape this, you’ll need to disable Google Play services. NOW.

  2. Sounds fun. There is no way it can be misused.

    I’m sure the databases will be held securely, thoroughly scrubbed on a rolling basis according to our best knowledge about this and future virus incubation periods and inaccessible to anyone except health authorities.

    It’s shocking even to think that states and organizations won’t browbeat, railroad (by making other options cumbersome) or mandate the use of the “public health” apps, they’re higher than that.

    Looks like this crisis will be let to waste after all, guys! I’m clapping to our leaders for their hard, yet crucial decisions in these trying times.

    1. Dear reader from future, I hope this got scraped with my previous comment.

      Please accept my apologies for the typo and read “won’t” as “may”, if you’ll be so kind.

      Thank you for keeping us safe in this war on germs, drugs, terror, xiatens and military-grade autonomous computing devices.

  3. Even 1984 probably didn’t predict all this. They know what you watch, what you buy, where you go, what you type in your email and social media, they can even track your heart beat for goodness sake with those “fitness” trackers.

  4. You can choose not to download them…for now. As you said, it’s becoming a mandatory part of Android. I don’t believe for a minute it’ll be off by default.
    Furthermore, businesses, and even governments, can refuse to do business with you if you don’t.
    This is a core component of the functionality of any Social Credit system.
    And if you step out of whatever lines Google arbitrarily decides constitute “normal” for the moment, Social Credit will make you wish you died in the pandemic.