Recently Google announced that they would partner up with Apple to develop a Bluetooth based COVID-19 contact tracking, which is occurring due to the coronavirus spread. The platform could alert people about when they have been in contact with an infected person in the span of the past few days.

Ideally, it doesn’t mean that you will have to expose your personal data like name or your location. How the platform works is that both the companies will partner up with international or national agencies and provide them with the API that they have developed. The API is then implemented in that app.

Now the phones which have that app will exchange an anonymous key with the person that they’ve been in close contact with. When one of the people is later diagnosed, the information is shared through the app. The system will notify other persons so they can self-quarantine themselves.

The whole platform will be implemented in two phases, and there are a still lot of things that are not yet clear, but let me tell you what we know so far

The First Phase

The first phase will start next month in May, and both the companies will work together to develop an application programming interface (API). It will be able to work on the operating system of both the companies i.e., iOS and Android platforms. The API will be restricted to the health apps launched by government bodies or the agencies working with the government, and they will be available on both the iOS app store and Google Play Store.

Currently, I don’t have any information about which apps will have this API. But whichever the apps may be, they both will be able to exchange keys if they have the provided API. For example, App A will be able to transfer the secure keys with App B irrespective of their operating systems.

No matter what the apps look like, the users need to add them to their phones; otherwise, it’s useless. Therefore it is expected that the number of users will be low initially, and the companies will, later on, need to work on better permanent solutions.

The Second Phase

The second phase, however, is much more effective, and it will be implemented at the operating system level. You don’t have to download any app to your device; you can just opt-in to the tracing procedure right from the device settings. Then if you are found exposed to any of the affected people, you will then receive a notification that urges you to download the health app released by the government.

I don’t know what kind of message will the system’s notification will show you to urge installing the health app. It is also unclear how will the update be provided for enabling such settings in the system. It might be easier for Apple as it has a closed system of software and hardware integration. But it won’t be the same for Google as it has a lot of users with lot of different devices to attend. Also, some might not have the same hardware capability

All said, the tracing would work only if you have Bluetooth LE on your phone; without it, there is no chance of the tracing platform working. Apple has added support of it since 2011 for iPhone 4S, while Google has added it since 2012 for the Android platform. So if you have got any phone older than 2012, this might be a good time to upgrade.

Apple and Google COVID-19 tracking tool
(Source:TechCrunch)
Apple and Google COVID-19 tracking tool

Let’s see what happens if you are expose

  1. The devices with tracing available in them exchange new keys every 15 minutes. Now, if a person is exposed to COVID-19 and they enter it to the health app.
  2. Then with the additional consent, the diagnosed user allows his anonymous contacts for the last 14 days to be identified through the system.
  3. The person who came into contact with the infected then receives notification from the health app that they have been in touch with the COVID-19 person in the last 10 days and should quarantine themselves.
  4. They are then provided further information from the government health app.

What are the challenges?

The app will need to filter spam-like alerts. Some people can try to create chaos by falsely claiming that they are flagged positive for the COVID-19 test. So perhaps Apple and Google need to work closely with the health agencies on the process of validation of any positive cases for the new patients.

Also, exposure check for COVID-19 isn’t simply an easy process; the more time you have spent with the infected person, the more risk you have. Therefore the apps need to provide a piece of exact information to the user. Also an accurate process about what they should do next based on their risk for exposure.

None of these is capable of replacing the traditional contact tracing interviews that are currently conducted by the medical professionals. But the tracing platform could supplement as a stepping stone and ease some process for the government and medical professionals. But there are a lot of details missing as of how it will correctly work.

Update:

Google has added a new Covid-19 tracking feature for notifying you about any alerts regarding the pandemic. But it is not a standalone feature and needs participating apps to work with. Various governments have launched apps to track the spread of the virus, so the notification feature is to work with those apps.

Ignore the rumors that says Apple and Google have installed an app without your permission in your phones. Nothing like this has been done. Just a new Covid-19 notification feature is added which you can find from setting.

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