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Photo: Apple and Google

Apple and Google on Friday announced a joint effort to notify people via smartphone — on an opt-in basis — if they've come into contact with someone with the coronavirus, without having to share users' location information with government authorities.

Why it matters: Contact tracing is seen as a key means for allowing society to reopen from shelter-in-place orders, but there have been significant privacy concerns about requiring people to share their location and other personal data with the government.

The big picture: Apple and Google have spent the last decade mostly driving wedges between their respective mobile operating systems but are launching this unprecedented collaboration as countries around the world eye technology solutions to track the spread of COVID-19. The companies aim to offer the maximum public health benefit without sacrificing individual privacy.

What's next: Apple and Google are implementing the necessary software in two phases.

  • In mid-May, the companies will update their operating system to support the contact-sharing technique and allow for contact-tracing apps.
  • In the coming months, a further operating system update will allow the system to work with out needing a specific app.

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 are 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.

The companies say they have taken a number of steps to protect user privacy, including:

  • Allowing individual choice whether to use the technology.
  • Not collecting location or other personally identifiable information.
  • Not allowing the actual list of people a user has been in contact with to leave the phone unless desired.
  • Pledging the tool will only be used for contact tracing by public health authorities for COVID-19 pandemic management.
  • Not identifying people who test positive to other users, Google or Apple.
  • Retaining the ability to disable the broadcast system on a region-by-region basis when it is no longer needed.

The bottom line: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield, echoing other public health officials from around the globe, told NPR Thursday that contact tracing is vital to curbing the spread of the coronavirus and preventing recurring localized outbreaks.

  • "It is going to be critical," he said. "We can't afford to have multiple community outbreaks that can spiral up into sustained community transmission — so it is going to be very aggressive, what I call 'block and tackle,' 'block and tackle.'"

Go deeper

Collins helps contractor before pro-Susan PAC gets donation

Sen. Susan Collins during her reelection campaign. Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

A PAC backing Sen. Susan Collins in her high-stakes reelection campaign received $150,000 from an entity linked to the wife of a defense contractor whose firm Collins helped land a federal contract, new public records show.

Why it matters: The executive, Martin Kao of Honolulu, leaned heavily on his political connections to boost his business, federal prosecutors say in an ongoing criminal case against him. The donation linked to Kao was veiled until last week.

How cutting GOP corporate cash could backfire

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Companies pulling back on political donations, particularly to members of Congress who voted against certifying President Biden's election win, could inadvertently push Republicans to embrace their party's rightward fringe.

Why it matters: Scores of corporate PACs have paused, scaled back or entirely abandoned their political giving programs. While designed to distance those companies from events that coincided with this month's deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol, research suggests the moves could actually empower the far-right.

8 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Kaine, Collins pitch Senate colleagues on censuring Trump

Sen. Tim Kaine speaks with Sen. Susan Collins. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP via Getty Images

Sens. Tim Kaine and Susan Collins are privately pitching their colleagues on a bipartisan resolution censuring former President Trump, three sources familiar with the discussions tell Axios.

Why it matters: Senators are looking for a way to condemn Trump on the record as it becomes increasingly unlikely Democrats will obtain the 17 Republican votes needed to gain a conviction in his second impeachment.