With the coronavirus pandemic, many countries have struggled with adequate surveillance. Public health officials are actively seeking ways to contain the highly contagious virus. Unfortunately, coronavirus contact tracing has been extremely limited. Because individuals may spread the infection well before symptoms appear, it is difficult to know who has been exposed. Better public health solutions are needed to resolve these issues… and companies like Google and Apple are stepping up to the plate to address these needs.
Indeed, Apple and Google routinely compete in several marketplaces. But recently, the two have teamed up to help offer public health solutions in this time of crisis. In a collaborative effort to devise better coronavirus contact tracing data, Google and Apple began a recent project together. While the project is still in its early stages, it is nonetheless offering technological solutions that are desperately needed. This is just another way that bold businesses are striving to use technological innovations to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
“All of us at Apple and Google believe there has never been a more important moment to work together to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems. Through close cooperation and collaboration with developers, governments and public health providers, we hope to harness the power of technology to help countries around the world slow the spread of COVID-19 and accelerate the return of everyday life.” – Joint statement by Google and Apple
The Coronavirus Contact Tracing Project
As with many technology systems, interoperability is an issue. When interoperability is lacking, communications and data exchanges between platforms becomes limited. Given that Apple apps operate on iOS platforms and Google on Android, this is a notable problem for many applications. And it is a specific problem when it comes to coronavirus contact tracing. While data from devices on both platforms could provide public health solutions in tacking disease, interoperability has been a roadblock. Fortunately, engineers from both companies appreciate the importance of working past these hurdles.
In late March, engineers from Apple and Google began developing application interface that would allow communications between their device platforms. The interface can be built into apps that consumers could choose to put on their phones. At the same time, public health sites could also utilize these apps. Once installed, devices use their built-in Bluetooth radios to transmit anonymous IDs. Time of exposure and distance among device users can then be collected and used to determine someone’s contacts. Servers can then be used to process this data and notify individuals of exposure risks. This has obvious coronavirus contact tracing advantages.
Currently, both Google and Apple to have their interface and related apps available by mid-May for use. This could then be used to provide public health solutions for tracking COVID-19 patients and their contacts. In essence, once a person finds out they have tested positive, the system can go back 14 days and determine all important contacts. These contacts can then be notified so they may be tested and appropriately managed. Being able to provide such a sophisticated level of coronavirus contact tracing would be incredibly useful. In addition to other measures like social distancing, this would allow more rapid detection, quarantining, and monitoring. It is clearly a public health solution that only this level of technology could provide.
“To their credit, Apple and Google have announced an approach that appears to mitigate the worst privacy and centralization risks, but there is still room for improvement. We will remain vigilant moving forward to make sure any contract tracing app remains voluntary and decentralized, and used only for public health purposes and only for the duration of this pandemic.” – Jennifer Granick, ACLU’s surveillance and cybersecurity counsel
Protecting Privacy in Public Health Solutions
With any technology that monitors location and personal information, privacy concerns exist. This is the case for Apple’s and Google’s public health solutions as well. However, both companies stress that the system is designed to protect privacy and to provide transparency. In terms of location, the platforms do not communicate any specific GPS locales of device users. In terms of privacy, a rotating, anonymous identification is used for each device that changes every 15 minutes. And none of the data communicated contains personal information about device users. In essence, the system only identifies contacts of device users who have revealed they are COVID-19 positive.
In addition to these privacy safeguards, the coronavirus contact tracing system is only an opt-in platform. This means that individuals who have tested positive must reveal their status by using the app. Likewise, device users who want to be informed of potential COVID-19 exposure must choose to download and use the app. The same is true for public health sites who wish to utilize this coronavirus contact tracing tool. Naturally, the benefit would be accelerated notifications of exposures as well as more comprehensive case tracking abilities. And without these notifications revealing user-specific information, there would be no way for someone to know where their exposure occurred. This is what makes this technology very attractive for public health solutions.
Using Technology for Public Health Solutions – Just the Beginning
The project upon which Google and Apple are collaborating will not cease once the interoperability app is completed. In fact, both are committed to developing the coronavirus contact tracing into their own platforms in the months to come. This will allow enhanced privacy protections and effectiveness while also using less battery life. At the same time, Google has pursued many additional public health solutions beyond the current project. For example, in India, Google has revamped search engines, site information, and mapping tools to address COVID-19 needs. Given the challenges that the current pandemic pose, these types of technological solutions offer tremendous hope. This is especially true when businesses choose to see past competitive instincts and embrace their responsibilities for the greater good.