Apple and Google have announced they are working together to create contact tracing technology aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus.
In a rare collaboration, the two companies plan to add new software to devices to make it easier to track down people who may have been infected with COVID-19.
To be effective, the system would require millions of people to opt into the system and trust the technology giants’ safeguards.
The operating systems of Apple and Google power 99% of the world’s smartphones. Under the plan, smartphones with the contact tracing technology will emit unique Bluetooth signals. Phones within about 6ft can then record anonymous information about their encounters.
People who test positive for coronavirus can opt to send an encrypted list of phones they came near to Apple and Google, which will trigger alerts to potentially exposed users to seek more information.
Public health authorities would need to confirm that a person has tested positive for COVID-19 before they can send on the data.
Being able to warn people early about potential transmission of the coronavirus is crucial to tackling the pandemic because people are believed to be at their most contagious before symptoms develop.
The companies say their system will use Bluetooth to ping out signals to other smartphones which are near by, and the smartphones will create a log of all of the other devices they come near to.
This log will protect the identities of these smartphones by randomising the identifiers each of them uses and changing them every 15 minutes.
If users choose to share this information with public health authorities then they can be alerted if any of those other devices belonged to someone who was diagnosed with COVID-19.
Over the coming months the companies say the contact-tracing feature will be added to the underlying iOS and Android operating systems. Any positive matches would prompt users to download their relevant public health app.
Accessing this data, which will only happen if users choose to share it, will be limited to public health authorities as recognised by the national governments where the companies operate.
Singapore released a similar app called TraceTogether in late March which functions using Bluetooth — although the app’s product lead Jason Bay published a blog post on Saturday warning that automated contact tracing apps should not be viewed as a “panacea.”