Apple and Google Unveil Covid-Tracking Technology

(CN) — Apple and Google rolled out new technology Wednesday that public health authorities can use to build their own contact tracing apps to help stop the spread of Covid-19.

The long-awaited software uses Bluetooth signals to detect when Android and Apple device users come close to one another. It will only work for users who have downloaded a contact tracing app that utilizes the technology.

“User adoption is key to success,” Apple and Google said in a joint statement Wednesday.

If someone is diagnosed with Covid-19, that person can report the diagnosis through the app. App users who came into contact with that person will then be notified immediately. Each user has the choice to opt in to receiving exposure notifications.

According to the two companies, 22 countries and three states plan to build apps using this new technology. Alabama, North Dakota and South Carolina were the first states to publicly announce they will use the software.

“We invite other states to join us in leveraging smartphone technologies to strengthen existing contact tracing efforts, which are critical to getting communities and economies back up and running,” North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum said in a statement.

The two companies said they sought input and guidance from public health officials, scientists, privacy groups and government leaders around the world as they worked to develop the software over the last several weeks.

Both companies noted safeguards that were adopted to protect users’ privacy. Each user’s identity will remain anonymous. No GPS location data will be used, and the data will stay on each user’s device rather than going to a centralized database controlled by a government authority.

“We believe that these strong privacy protections are also the best way to encourage use of these apps,” the companies said in a statement.

The partnership between the two rival technology giants is unprecedented, but the collaboration was necessary to ensure tracking apps can work for both Android and Apple device users. It will make it easier for iPhones and Android phones to detect each other, work across national and regional borders and fix some problems that led previous apps to quickly drain a phone’s battery.

Both companies said they are not trying to replace traditional contact tracing, an accepted infection control method which involves trained public health workers reaching out to people who may have been exposed to an infected person. Rather, the automatic “exposure notification” system is meant to augment that process and slow the spread of Covid-19 by making people aware of potential exposures so they can get tested and avoid activities that could help spread the virus.

North Dakota had previously launched a location tracking app that was used by about 4% of state residents. While that rate of acceptance is higher than in states with similar apps, it still falls short of what experts say is needed to make the technology useful.

Tim Brookins, the CEO of ProudCrowd, the startup that developed North Dakota’s app, said Wednesday that North Dakotans will now be asked to download two complementary apps — his model, to help public health workers track where Covid-19 patients have been, and the Apple-Google model, to privately notify people who might have been exposed to the virus.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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