Google, Apple partner on Bluetooth COVID-19 contact tracing tech

Google and Apple announced a joint effort using Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

The move is significant on a number of levels, including the fact these two tech behemoths operate two fiercely competitive operating systems. Their joint effort came together in just the last two weeks, according to The New York Times.

Contact tracing – the process of finding and reaching out to the contacts of someone who tests positive for the virus – is seen as a valuable tool to contain the spread of COVID-19.  

Apple and Google’s solution includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing. Given the urgent need, the plan is to implement the solution in two steps while maintaining what they describe as strong protections around user privacy. 

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In May, both companies will release APIs that enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. The official apps will be available for users to download via their respective app stores. 

Then in the coming months, Apple and Google will work to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building the functionality into the underlying platforms. They described it as a more robust solution than an API and said it would allow more individuals to participate, if they choose to opt in, as well as enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities.

“Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders,” the companies said. “We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyze.”

They added that “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.”

The solution uses Bluetooth Low Energy for proximity detection of nearby smartphones, and for the data exchange mechanism. GPS is not involved.

Axios reported that 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.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Director Robert Redfield told NPR on Thursday that the first step toward returning society to some normalcy will be to increase the number of tests, especially the type of tests that provide rapid results. Testing capacity is increasing daily and he's encouraged to see that point-of-care tests that give results within minutes are starting to enter the market.

The next step will be to scale up capacity for tracing the contacts of those who test positive. "It is going to be critical," he told NPR. "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.'"