Apr 13, 2020 - Technology

Apple, Google limit how coronavirus contact-tracing tech can be used

Ina Fried
Illustration of a cell phone wearing a medical mask

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Only public health authorities will be able to create apps using Apple and Google's new contact-tracing technology, and governments won't be able to force people to use the tech, the companies clarified Monday.

Why it matters: The clarifications, and others offered by the companies on Monday, aim to address some of the privacy questions raised by the technology, which was jointly announced Friday.

Details: Apple and Google had been working on their joint effort — a smartphone-based system for notifying people if they were in contact with someone that tested positive for COVID-19 — for the last two and a half weeks, they said Monday.

  • While other agencies and countries are building their own technologies, Apple and Google said they wanted to create something that offers the maximum public health benefit without compromising individual privacy.
  • Unlike some other approaches, Apple and Google won't collect location information or identifying information about who tests positive. They also require a person to consent to share the data that is collected.
  • The companies also said Monday that health authorities will be able to include a mechanism for verifying that someone tested positive, such as a QR code from a health care provider. That helps address concerns that people could cause havoc by falsely claiming they tested positive.

How it works:

  • Google and Apple are both making changes to their mobile operating systems to let devices exchange a private key with nearby smartphones via Bluetooth, logging any time users come in close proximity.
  • If someone tests positive for COVID-19 and enters that information into an app, 14 days' worth of their contacts with other users is sent to a server.
  • Phones periodically check if any recently encountered user has reported being infected. If so, a notification pops up letting the user know that someone they have been in contact with has tested positive and more information is provided.
  • The new technology will work on iPhones running iOS 13 or later and on Android devices running any version of the operating system from 2015's Marshmallow on.

Most information is stored on individual devices; however, a server is needed to broadcast the keys used by someone who tests positive. Countries can either run their own servers or use ones from Apple and Google, the companies said on Monday.

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