On Friday, Apple and Google said they’re doing something they usually avoid like the plague, working together. The tech giants are teaming up to add contact tracking technology to their smartphone operating systems, aimed at slowing the the coronavirus spread. Apps could be available by Mid-May.
Tracking an option for both iPhones and androids
Users must “opt into” the tracking program to access the data, cataloging all the other phones that got close enough to theirs for the spread of the coronavirus to occur. Soon, all the iPhones and androids will be happily chirping silent Bluetooth greetings at each other. Between the two of them, their “operating systems power 99% of the world’s smartphones.”
The next step is creation of apps intended to “get potentially infected individuals into testing or quarantine.” The technology can do the contact tracing much “more quickly and reliably than existing systems.”
For the past two weeks, engineers at Apple and Google have had their heads together working on software updates. The idea is to allow “mobile devices to trade information via Bluetooth connections.” That way, they can “alert people when they have been in close proximity with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.”
No location or identity data
They assure users that the new technology won’t be tracking the “location or identity of users.” All they care about is “data about when users’ phones have been near each other.” They won’t even see the data because it will be “decrypted on the user’s phone rather than the companies’ servers.” GPS data will not be included.
Contract tracing by hand is notoriously labor intensive, requiring health workers to physically locate and inform the contacts of an infected person to ask them to get tested and self-quarantine. Health technology experts are thrilled with any help they can get.
Anyone who tests positive for Covid-19 needs to “consult with healthcare officials” and then they can chose whether or not they want to alert others through the tracking system. Anyone who gets a “notification they have been close to someone who tested positive,” should contact officials to see what their next step should be.
Similar tracking already in use
When apps become available, Google will put them on Google Play and Apple is doing a software update. With Apple phones, some users have the auto update feature disabled and won’t get the update automatically.
New Mexico is already using cell phone data from a third party provider to “create social distancing models.” Descartes Labs in Santa Fe “has access to the cell phone data,” Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham confirmed Thursday. They want to “screen truckers who are bringing in supplies and take their temperatures” but don’t have enough thermometers. “We’re really nervous that this virus will follow travelers into the state.”
Two other tech companies started tracking cell phone data from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, during spring break. They created a map to show where everybody went after potentially being infected on the crowded beaches. It showed the unwary youngsters “spreading out all across the country to major cities including New York and Chicago, possibly bringing the coronavirus with them.”