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Coronavirus: Apple and Google unite for contact tracing technology

Silicon Valley giants announce collaboration to prevent the spread of Coronavirus

Mobile communications technology has emerged as one of the key weapons in the armoury of governments and public health officials to control the spread of Covid-19, and in a huge boost to their efforts, Apple and Google have announced a partnership in contact tracing technology.

Since Covid-19 can be transmitted through close proximity to affected individuals, public health officials have identified contact tracing as a valuable tool to help contain its spread.

In China, and despite widely reported reservations about data privacy, the AliPay HealthCode app enables users to track their Covid-19 status, while in Korea, telco SK Telecom announced that until the Korean government declares the end of the coronavirus crisis, it will provide its Geovision big data-based real-time floating population analysis service to the police agency free of charge in the country’s Gyeongbuk region.

In the UK, digital healthcare innovation unit NHSX is exploring the idea of developing an app that alerts people if they come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the Covid-19 coronavirus. The contact tracing app would allow the UK government and healthcare officials to instantly track the spread of infection digitally, removing the need for time-consuming manual tracking.

In announcing their partnership, the Silicon Valley giants noted that software developers were contributing to the battle against Covid-19 by crafting technical tools to help combat the virus and save lives. They added that in the spirit of the collaboration, their joint effort was designed to enable the use of technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design.

The combined Apple and Google solution includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing.

Given the urgent need for a solution, the companies plan to implement this solution in two steps while maintaining strong protections around user privacy. First, in May, both companies will release APIs that enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. These official apps will be available for users to download via their respective app stores.

Read more about Covid-19 and mobile communications

Second, in the coming months, Apple and Google will work to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms. The two companies noted that this is a more robust solution than an API and 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.

Given the nature of the project and the nature of the information that the mobile devices would be carrying, the companies emphasised that privacy, transparency and consent were of utmost importance in this effort, and that they look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders.

In the spirit of the venture, the companies promised to openly publish information about their work for others to analyse, and in a first step, they released draft technical documentation, including Bluetooth and cryptography specifications and framework documentation.

In a joint statement of their work, the companies said: “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.

“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.”

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