It is going to be an opt-in system that will be the result of an unorthodox collaboration but it is what the world needs right now. Two of the biggest tech giants – Apple and Google are joining forces to work on the idea of digital contact tracing to help the world get a handle on the spread of COVID-19.

What Is Digital Contact Tracing?

Digital contact tracing is quite simple and has to do a lot with the incubation period of COVID-19. It takes about 7-14 days for the symptoms of the disease to exhibit themselves and if anyone finds out that they have contracted the disease; an alert will be sent to everyone who has been close to them during the last 14 days. This can help other people to self-isolate and seek medical care right away instead of waiting until symptoms pop up, by then they would have unknowingly ended up spreading the disease to a lot more. However, bear in mind that this is an opt-in feature and you would have to consent before it could collect data.

While this news brings some optimism, many concerns have been raised about the privacy and security of the people involved. We will get to that in a bit, but first, let’s talk about how this tool will operate and why it is such a big deal. What Google and Apple intend to do is to make their devices capable of communicating with one another and record whenever you are close to other people.

Now, if anyone of those persons was to contract the disease; they would report this to public health authorities and all of the people that have been in contact with the said person would receive a notification informing them that someone they have been close to has contracted the disease. However, everything has been designed so that it is not only autonomous but also highly anonymous. The contact information will be kept secure while giving priority to the users’ privacy.

How This Digital Contact Tracing Tool Will Work

Once the digital contact tracing feature has been rolled out, your smartphone will become capable of exchanging tracking keys with all of the devices in its proximity. These keys will be anonymous and the exchange will be taking place periodically. The medium used for this exchange of keys will be Bluetooth. Moving forward, each smartphone will retain a list of keys that have been collected from people that you have met and this information will remain on your phone – as a local copy – and not on any server. This will be the case until a person contracts the disease. Once that happens, you will have your phone send those keys to a server that will then send out alerts to the owners of those keys. The alert will inform them about the unfortunate news and will guide them about how they can proceed.

This digital contact tracing tool has been scheduled for release in May. It will be rolled out in two installments. The first installment will have Google and Apple work on and release an application programming interface (API) that will enable Android and iOS devices to communicate amongst themselves. This API will be used by others (mostly public health organizations) to create applications that could be used for contact tracing. The second installment will see this digital contact tracing tool become integrated into your smartphone’s OS. That will remove the need for you to have an app to exchange keys. However, you will still need to download an app if you test positive for COVID-19 to inform the people you have been close to in recent days.

Again, this is an opt-in feature implying that unless you were to opt-in there will be no exchange of information taking place whatsoever. A press release by Apple and Google said, ‘This is a more robust solution than an API and would allow more individuals to participate if they choose to opt-in, as well as enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities. Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders.’

Privacy Concerns About This Team-Up

Apple and Google have announced that they will be developing this tool while paying attention to the need of keeping identities of people involved anonymous throughout the process. The dynamic duo has also confirmed that it won’t be creating a database of those who have contracted COVID-19. This information will remain stored on the phone of the user unless and until a person tests positive and then uploads their status. The exchange keys, cryptographic in nature, will be anonymous and temporary. They will refresh every 15 minutes and the companies have also said that they will be releasing periodic reports detailing the progress of this feature.

Furthermore, it has been decided that only public health authorities will have access to the API for the sake of building apps. The success of this tool will depend on the involvement of masses though because the more people that will opt-in, the more effective this strategy would become.

Despite the statements by the duo about being very careful of the privacy of everyone involved, organizations including the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have been very vocal about the privacy concerns that come as part of the package for such digital contact tracing tools.

Jennifer Granick, ACLU surveillance, and cybersecurity counsel, writes in a public statement, ‘To their credit, Apple and Google have announced an approach that appears to mitigate the worst privacy and centralization risks, but there is still room for improvement. We will remain vigilant moving forward to make sure any contract tracing app remains voluntary and decentralized, and used only for public health purposes and only for the duration of this pandemic.’

Then we have Bennet Cyphers, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who says, ‘We don’t want anything to be built into the OS that’s going to be turned on forever.’ Plus there have been concerns about the accuracy of Bluetooth and the location precision as well.

There’s a lot that is still under the wraps in regards to this digital contact tracing tool by Apple and Google. However, we are sure that it will be explained by the duo in the coming weeks. This remains, however, as one of the most far-reaching initiatives taken to curb the spread of COVID-19 and we commend both companies involved for their efforts!