Earlier this month, when Apple and Google announced that they would be working together, it could only be classified as an unprecedented announcement. And perhaps timely too, considering the world is fighting the COVID outbreak. Now, that partnership has taken a crucial step forward, with Apple and Google releasing the COVID-19 Exposure Notification API for testing, as part of software updates rolled out to them, The two big tech companies are developing a contract tracing solution that uses the Bluetooth technology in iPhones and Android phones, and will allow government and health agencies around the world to track and notify you in case you have met with or have come in close proximity with someone who is now confirmed to have been affected by the Coronavirus, or COVID-19. Apple and Google have also detailed the privacy aspects and how the data will be collected, time and again. The expectation is that this, once implemented sooner rather than later, will work seamlessly across Android phones and the iPhones.
The proposed solution will work in two stages. The first are the APIs that are now available on iOS for iPhones and Android for a variety of Android-powered smartphones, albeit they are available for testing at this stage. The second will be an integration of contact tracing tech within Android and iOS, for instant access to all users, which will be rolled out in the coming weeks. At this stage, Apple has released a beta version of Xcode 11.5 and the third beta of iOS 13.5—the Xcode includes tools that developers would need for building iOS apps that incorporate the COVID API, while the iOS beta integrates the code needed by apps that will be developed by health authorities around the world. Google has also released similar updates for developers via updates to Google Play Services and the Android Developer Studio.
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This is How BLE Tracing works
The contact tracing is essentially a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) service registered with the Bluetooth SIG with 16-bit Universally Unique Identifier, UUID 0xFD6F, that is designed to enable proximity sensing of Rolling Proximity Identifier between devices for the purpose of computing an exposure event. The two phones, which could be your phone and someone else’s phone in your proximity, will exchange anonymous identifier keys. All the discovered data shall be kept on the device, which is your smartphone. These logs will be uploaded with the user’s consent in case they are confirmed to have been infected by Coronavirus, or COVID. These logs will then be downloaded by your smartphone and matched against the logs your phone has collected via Bluetooth tracing over time. If your logs match any smartphone user who has now been confirmed with COVID, you will see a notification on your phone alerting you about it with steps on what to do next.
You do not require any location data for this to work
Apple and Google say that at no point does the Bluetooth based contract tracing require any location data access. It can work very well without it too. “The Contact Tracing Bluetooth Specification does not require the user’s location; any use of location is completely optional to the schema. In any case, the user must provide their explicit consent in order for their location to be optionally used,” they say.
All the data stays private, but with caveats
Apple and Google also take pains to emphasise on the point that the list of contacts never leaves your phone, list of people who you may have come in range with never leaves your phone and at no point is the data shared with Apple or Google, in case of a positive test. Only public health authorities will have access to that data—though Apple and Google will have no say in who these authorities then share the data with.
The roadmap for Apple and Google’s Contact Tracing Rollout
Apple and Google say that they will roll out the application programming interfaces (APIs) for this on iOS and Android respectively by mid-May, which will allow health authorities to use apps that users can opt-in for to collect data. They say these official apps by health agencies and governments will be available for download via the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. Countries including India, Singapore, Taiwan and China, to name a few, have contact tracing platforms and apps in place, and smartphone users can download these and share data. In India, we are specifically talking about the Aarogya Setu app.
The second stage would be where Apple and Google will work on a Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform which will also be used by apps made by health authorities to track user proximity data—and this will be built into iOS and Android and the option will be available to all users without having to download another app.
This is why Contract Tracing is critical
Contact tracing is critical in curbing the Coronavirus spread around the country and indeed around the world. A person who may be infected with the COVID-19 virus may not show any signs or symptoms for as many as 14 days more but can spread the infection in the meantime through cough, for instance. As and when a confirmed COVID case is taken in for treatment, health authorities scramble to track as many people this infected person may have met in the past few days. “Contact Tracing makes it possible to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus by alerting participants of possible exposure to someone who they have recently been in contact with, and who has subsequently been positively diagnosed as having the virus,” says Apple.
Apple and Google insist the development of this solution is a two-step process. “First, in May, both companies will release APIs that enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. These official apps will be available for users to download via their respective app stores,” says Google in an official statement. “Software developers are contributing by crafting technical tools to help combat the virus and save lives, says Apple.