How Apple and Google plan to use your phone to track COVID-19

Apple and Google have announced a system that tracks the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, using mobile phones.

How does Apple and Google’s COVID-19 tracking system work?

The system, which has been published in white papers, uses short-range Bluetooth Low Energy transmissions to create a contact-tracing network, in which data can be voluntarily shared among users who are in close proximity to each other. Apple and Google plan to offer iOS and Android APIs next month so that official apps from health organizations can hook into their system. 

Participants, initially, need to download these apps to report if they’ve been diagnosed. Basically, Apple and Google’s system will pick up Bluetooth signals of any nearby passing phone every five minutes, and if one person tests positive and has told an app, all other phones that have passed within close range of the infected person within the preceding days will be notified. 

Is Apple and Google’s COVID-19 tracking system safe to use?

Contact tracing involves identifying whether an infected person has been in contact with others, and it’s a proven way to contain the spread of infectious diseases such as COVID-19, but there are valid privacy concerns about using any sort of surveillance, even if it’s just tracking users with phone data, to help combat the coronavirus. Any implementation would need to be limited and avoid violating user privacy.

If you willingly share your data, Apple and Google have said your identity will be anonymized, as their system broadcasts anonymous cryptographic keys, which cycle every 15 minutes to maintain privacy. And central servers won’t store interactions between keys.

Eventually, the two companies hope to bake the contact-tracing system into their operating systems, so that everyone with an iOS or Android phone can opt-in and join the effort. The downside to this system is that it could cause panic in crowded places, especially if someone were to be alerted to an infectious person being in their presence, and it relies on people who self-report.

It also isn’t ideal for people with older phones and lower connectivity. But it’s an interesting, innovative approach nonetheless.

When will Apple and Google’s COVID-19 tracking system be available?

Apple and Google will release APIs for app developers in May. This will “enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities,” according to Apple. As for the health apps you can download to report whether you have COVID-19, those haven’t been named, but they will be available to Android users via the Play Store and iPhone users via the App Store. 

Want to know more?

Apple and Google have released draft technical documentation here. Statements from the CEOs of both companies are below. 


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