Google and Apple last week joined hands to create a decentralized contact tracing tool that will help individuals determine whether they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. Now, both companies have confirmed that they will begin rolling out the APIs of their new tool for Android and iOS apps, starting mid-May. While Apple will make the feature available to all iOS 13 devices, Google says it will update Google Play Services with the new software on all Android devices running 6.0 Marshmallow and above.
During the first phase of the project in the coming weeks, the contact tracing APIs will be made available to verified public health authorities to be incorporated into their official COVID-19 apps, like the Corona Kavach and Arogya Setu apps from the Indian government. The next phase will include the actual system-level contact tracing mechanism that will work across Android and iOS devices on an opt-in basis. That, however, will only start happening “in the coming months”. It’s not immediately clear whether the software will be open-sourced, but Google says that it will offer code audits to companies that want to adopt a similar system.
According to TechCrunch, the technology will use Bluetooth beacons to transmit anonymous and randomized IDs over short ranges to determine whether the user has been in close contact with anyone infected with the novel virus. It will do so by detecting nearby devices belonging to folks who have already tested positive for the novel coronavirus. If the system detects any such device in close proximity, the user is notified, enabling them to get tested and to self-quarantine.
However, the technology is already raising privacy concerns, with some experts citing cases in China where the government is allegedly using contact tracing as an excuse to spy on its citizens. On their parts, Google and Apple claim that they are taking all possible precautions to prevent misuse of the new system. Firstly, they say that the API will be restricted only to authorized public health organizations in different countries. Secondly, the data will be decentralized, making it difficult for governments to conduct surveillance.