5 things to know about the Apple-Google collab on contact tracing

Their new effort will use Bluetooth technology to scale traditional contact-tracing approaches faster than humans can alone.


April 13, 2020

Two of the world’s biggest tech giants are going big on contact tracing.

On Friday, Apple and Google announced that they’re teaming up on an effort to track the spread of the coronavirus — using data from smartphones. 

The idea is to take traditional contact tracing — which involves medical pros interviewing people who test positive — digital. The digital approach scales a lot more quickly than relying on humans alone.

Here are 5 things you should know about the plan:

1️⃣ Apps using Bluetooth will be developed to monitor your proximity to other people’s devices. When a user tests positive for COVID-19, they log the information in the app. If the system sees that your phone was near one that had registered a positive test, you’d be notified.

2️⃣ Don’t expect a ton of apps to flood the market. The Wall Street Journal reported that Apple and Google intend to vet the apps strictly, with a hope of offering one per country. Eventually, they want to bake contact tracing into the Android and iOS operating systems.

3️⃣ Their success depends on how many people use them. Singapore already has a contact-tracing app. A top official there said ¾ of the country’s population would have to use it for it to work as intended. But only 1 in 6 people (about 1m individuals) have installed it so far. Even so, it’s regarded as successful.

4️⃣ Bluetooth ain’t perfect. Experts have concerns about privacy and false positives. Self-reporting could get sketchy fast. And just because your phone came within range of an infected person’s device, that doesn’t necessarily mean you got close enough to catch something.

5️⃣ But it would be hard for hackers to exploit the system. The Verge crunched the technical documentation and found that someone would have to jump through MAJOR hoops to connect the data back to actual people. The system doesn’t identify you or actually log your location.

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