Apple and Google Team Up to Fight COVID-19
As Australia launches its COVID-19 tracing app, two technology giants have stepped up to develop a similar solution. However, as Apple and Google partner to help address contact tracing, the move has raised privacy concerns the world over.
Apple and Google announced a joint project that uses Bluetooth technology to assist government and health agencies. The companies plan to embed contact tracing automatically into smartphone operating systems within the next several months.
That news came shortly before Australia launched Covidsafe, which uses similar technology to detect and alert users.
How Would Apple and Google’s Contact Tracing Technology Work?
The companies’ plan is to use Bluetooth technology to record anonymously a list of other smartphones that pass nearby. The opt-in technology would then issue an alert if someone in that list of contacts later tests positive for COVID-19.
User devices would send out via Bluetooth, a beacon that contains a string of numbers that are not tied to an individual and would change every 10-20 minutes. Other phones would “listen” for these beacons and send out similar signals.
When a phone receives a beacon signal, it will securely record and store the information. At least once a day, the system would download a list of beacons identified as belonging to people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 from public health agencies. If there’s a match, the device will issue an alert, and users will be notified about what steps to take.
“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 noted on a website devoted to the project. “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.”
The two companies shared preliminary specs about the plan, including how the Bluetooth technology would work, the cryptography, and the API. It noted that all those specs were subject to change.
In an FAQ section, on the website, the companies provided more details on how the tracing project would work. The first phase would release API information allowing contact tracing apps developed by public health agencies to work on iOS and Android devices. This step is slated for delivery in May 2020. In the second phase, operating system updates would be issued, installing and activating the beacon technology.
How Does Covidsafe Work?
The Covidsafe plan works similarly. The app is not mandatory and will store 21 days of information, with data stored on user phones. If you test positive, that information is loaded to a government server, allowing health officials to notify contacts stored in the log.
Plan Raises Privacy Concerns
Privacy advocates warn that despite the public health benefits of such technologies, there are risks. In response to these concerns, the two companies announced the project would be opt-in, meaning users would need to turn on the feature rather than having it activated by default. The companies plan to use better encryption and safeguards to prevent personally identifiable information from being exposed.
In late April, the U.K.’s National Health Service rejected the Apple-Google plan, saying they have an alternative system. The NHS plan uses a centralised model with information stored on computer servers instead of on users’ devices.
At the same time, Germany announced it was backing the Apple-Google decentralised model, abandoning a model that would give public health agencies control over the tracing data. That decision was based, in part, on the concerns of hundreds of scientists expressing reservations that a centralised solution amounted to uncontrolled surveillance.
Balancing the concerns of public health and privacy is a complex issue for governments and private companies. At Sydney Technology Solutions, we’re here to help your company with cybersecurity and IT services during these unprecedented times. To learn more about our tools and solutions, contact us today.