Apple and Google integrated tracking system against COVID-19

integrated tracking system

Apple and Google have decided to intervene. The two big companies have just announced the creation of a integrated tracking system that will be integrated into iOS and Android. The idea? Make available to health authorities tools that allow the development of applications to try to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Specifically, Google and Apple have decided to standardize a system based on Bluetooth LE so that mobile devices serve as a trace of possible infections. With this standard, both companies will allow applications for Android and iOS to be easily developed that, depending on the people we have approached, can notify us if any of them has tested positive for coronavirus so that we can take the appropriate measures. This is what we know about the new project that will start rolling this May.

How the integrated tracking system will work.

The operation of the system, as published by Google and Apple, will be as follows:

  1. When two people are physically close, their phones will exchange identifier codes for Bluetooth. These are “anonymous” codes that will also change from time to time.
  2. Each phone will keep two lists: one with the codes of their own sent to other phones of close people and the other with the codes received by close people.
  3. In the event that a person tests positive for COVID-19 and so indicates it in an official application of a healthcare organization, their own identification codes will automatically be uploaded to the cloud.
  4. Periodically, all mobiles download the identification codes of the users who have tested positive for COVID-19 from the cloud and compare them with the identification codes received from other people who have them stored.
  5. If on your mobile phone there is a match between the third-party codes that you have stored (those shared by the people with whom you have come across) and one of those that have tested positive on COVID-19, an app could send you a message alert alerting you that you have been near a person infected and provide you with more information on what to do next.

A common standard for iOS and Android in several phases

The joint statement of the two companies shows the intention to launch this project as soon as possible, joining efforts “together with governments and health authorities.” The first step of this initiative will be to create an API for both iOS and Android that allows different applications to access these trace tools in a secure and native way. This API will be available in May and the different monitoring applications will be able to make use of this system.

This API will be common to both operating systems so that they can work centrally. That is, the trace will be detected regardless of whether a user has an iPhone or an Android mobile.

The second step will be to create a system-level solution. A contact tracking platform based on Bluetooth connections. A system that has already been implemented in solutions like Singapore’s TraceTogether app. Because it will be integrated into the operating system itself, all applications that take advantage of this system will be able to connect to each other regardless of the government that uses them.

The tracking system will record who you have been in contact with, but “this information will never come off the phone . ” People who have tested positive will not be identified by other users, or by Google or Apple, they explain. Tracking data will only be used to keep track of who you have been in contact with and will only be used by health authorities.

What kind of data will this monitoring system obtain?

One of the debates that have arisen as a result of this type of application is about privacy. From Google and Apple they are aware of the relevance of this project and how many users might feel concerned.

Given this, they explain that ” privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we hope to build this functionality in consultation with interested parties. We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyze.” A stance that can be seen in the tweets of Sundar Pichai and Tim Cook, CEOs of Alphabet and Apple respectively, where the word ‘privacy’ is present.

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In the document that has been published, Google and Apple explain that the system “will require the explicit consent of the user” and add that “it does not collect personally identifiable information or location data from the user “.

As one of the technical documents indicates, the specification of the Bluetooth protocol for contact tracking does not require knowing the user’s location and any use of it will be completely optional. The ‘rolling proximity identifiers’ will change on average every 15 minutes, so “it is unlikely that the user’s location can be tracked via Bluetooth over time.”

In case the user has been diagnosed positive by COVID-19, the user agrees to share the ‘Diagnosis key’ with the server . A process where the user will receive information in a transparent way at all times, as explained by Google and Apple.

The truth is that it is a relatively new system. Apple and Google are still working on it and it is not a foolproof mechanism. And it is that despite being a tool integrated into operating systems, users must either update their smartphones or install applications from the Play Store or the App Store. A step that will require user intervention.

Arnold Bloom

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