The COVID-19 pandemic has united the two largest tech companies on the planet. On Friday, Apple and Google announced a partnership "to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design."
Contact tracing, for those who don't know, is a way to identify who you've come into contact with. By determining who an infected person has contacted, it's possible to stem further virus spread by quarantining and monitoring those people.
"Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders," reads Apple's announcement. "We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyze."
The two companies said the technology would be focused on privacy and security. Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai both tweeted out the historic partnership.
Apple says the Bluetooth contact tracing technology will be built into the "underlying platforms" for both iOS and Android "in the coming months." The feature will be opt-in and "enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities."
In the meantime, both companies will release apps on their respective mobile platforms in May with APIs that "enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities."
How it works — According to Google:
- Explicit user consent required
- Doesn’t collect personally identifiable information or user location data
- List of people you’ve been in contact with never leaves your phone
- People who test positive are not identified to other users, Google or Apple
- Will only be used for contact tracing by public health authorities for COVID-19 pandemic management
- Doesn’t matter if you have an Android phone or an iPhone - works across both
The company shared some helpful illustrations to break down how the Bluetooth contact tracing works:
Apple has also shared a white paper detailing how the Bluetooth contact tracing technology works. It's really nerdy stuff, but important if you're interested in knowing exactly what's happening under the hood.
Privacy first — While both companies have pledged to put prioritize privacy and security, we feel it's imperative that Apple gives users better control over the data collected by Bluetooth contact tracing. Any location and health data that could be used for nefarious purposes should be deleted after a set amount of time when the COVID-19 pandemic passes.
Additionally, all data needs to be encrypted end-to-end. No ifs ands or buts. Data passed to the governments shouldn't include any backdoors allowing potential abusers to misuse the information.
Historically, Apple has advocated for strong encryption. The company has made it clear on multiple occasions — during the San Bernardino shootings and most recently during the Pensacola shooting — that it won't yield to any government's request to weaken iOS' security.
Apple's full announcement below:
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. A number of leading public health authorities, universities, and NGOs around the world have been doing important work to develop opt-in contact tracing technology. To further this cause, Apple and Google will be launching a comprehensive solution that includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing. Given the urgent need, the plan is 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.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. 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. Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders. We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyze.
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.
As part of this partnership, Google and Apple are releasing draft technical documentation including Bluetooth and cryptography specifications and framework documentation.
Tim Cook tweeted the following on the announcement:
Google CEO Sundar Pichai also shared the news: