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Apple, Google release template for COVID-19 contact tracing apps

Gopal Ratnam, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Science & Technology News

Apple and Google on Wednesday released the first phase of a template that would allow software developers to build apps to assist public health authorities in tracking the spread of COVID-19.

Apple and Google executives told reporters that they had refined several features of the template after extensive consultations with public health authorities, privacy advocates, academics and government agencies from around the world. More refinements could be added in later phases through updates, they said.

The Bluetooth-based design would depend not only on voluntary download of the apps by users around the world but also require express consent from users to report a positive diagnosis for COVID-19 through the app. The design also would only allow those apps that have been built by or on behalf of public health authorities, the companies said.

The template, called Exposure Notification API, is being rolled out to iPhone and Android users in the form of a software update, both companies said.

Several U.S. states and as many as 22 countries across five continents have expressed interest in using the technology to conduct contact tracing, Apple and Google executives told reporters on a conference call on the condition that they not be named. The executives also declined to name the states or countries that have expressed interest in the technology.

And unlike earlier designs, the application programming interface -- the template -- would not require information to be stored in a central database but instead would allow users to see on their own smartphones if they have been exposed to someone with the illness, company executives said. The template will prohibit developers from using a device's GPS to track users' location and will not broadcast any aspect of a user's identity to anyone else, the companies said.

 

The information would be used only by public health authorities and neither company will collect any personal user data nor monetize them, the companies said. The Bluetooth keys will be generated randomly and metadata traveling between devices will be encrypted, the companies said.

The unique Apple-Google collaboration was launched five weeks ago to ensure that the apps on iPhones and Android devices can send and receive Bluetooth signals from each other, the executives said. The companies engineered the design so as to ensure that Bluetooth signals can be sent and received even when a user's phone is in sleep mode, and that such signal transmission would not drain devices' batteries, the companies said.

Contact tracing is becoming a key feature of managing the spread of the pandemic as states and countries across the world reopen their economies after more than two months of shutting down almost all economic activity. The goal of contact tracing is to have public health authorities track down anyone testing positive for the disease and figure out who they may have come into contact with during the previous two weeks and alerting those people to seek medical attention and isolate themselves.

The design template would allow public health authorities to define parameters as they see fit, including specifying what constitutes exposure to an infected person, figuring out how many exposures an individual might have had, and assessing the transmission risk on a case-by-case basis.

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