Apple and Google Collaboration On Covid-19 Contact Tracing
The World is in the grip of deadly disease in the form of Covid-19. Until a cure or a vaccine is found, which everyone understands will be a long way off, the best we can do is take measures to reduce infections and protect ourselves.
A cure or vaccine is a long way off because it takes time for one to be discovered and then taken through its paces through clinical trials to ensure that not only is it effective but also safe. The most promising cures or vaccines at the moment, it is projected, may only be available to the general public by the end of the year.
The most effective approach to mitigate the virus has been to reduce contact between individuals. Human activity has been reduced in many countries by curtailing work from the office or on-site such that only essential services are in operation.
In what is termed "social distancing", people are staying at home and where possible, working online to keep some businesses active. People can be seen to be wearing face masks in order to further reduce the spread of the virus.
An important approach that is being used by health officials is "contact tracing" which is for the most part being carried out manually. In this approach, an effort is made to trace all points of contact for a person who tests positive for Covid-19 which can be a mammoth task.
Impact of Technology
Technology has been making an impact in the fight against Covid-19 in various degrees in different countries. However the effort so far has not been coordinated on a global scale with countries applying different measures of technology in this fight against the disease.
The range of use of technology has mainly been to spread the right kind and accurate information about rates of infection and deaths around the globe. To this end dashboards, depicting stats for the pandemic have appeared all over.
Some countries such as China are making use of drones for inspection, broadcasting information, delivery of critical supplies, disinfecting critical areas and conducting temperature checks.
Technology is being used with varying success rates and in vastly differing degrees of effectiveness as each country has its own approach. Some governments have developed apps based on GPS technologies to help in contact tracing.
Apple and Google Come Together
Disasters have a tendency to bring people together for the common good. In an unprecedented move and a first, Apple and Google, the world's major mobile phone operating system companies have come together to develop a common platform to implement contact tracing on their platforms in a coordinated way.
The two companies made an initial release of tools in April for public health organizations so that health agencies can start developing apps for the common system on iOS and Android which are set to be officially released in mid-may.
The initial release is a Software Development Kit (SDK) and Application Programming Interfaces, (APIs) that developers working with health agencies can develop on the mobile platforms. The second major release that is coming in due course will involve integrations into the operating systems themselves - which is a deeper integration than an API.
In the first phase, developers will be able to develop Bluetooth based apps that will allow infected individuals who test positive for Covid-19 to input their diagnosis into the app so that people who were in close contact with the infected person can be aware of the risk of contact and also go for testing.
The Bluetooth app will use cryptographic keys to identify people in close proximity anonymously which will be uploaded to servers that will process them and match any keys that would have been matched for possible contact with a submitted diagnosis.
Challenges Using The System
One of the biggest challenges facing the system is privacy concerns. First of all people will voluntarily opt-in to use the system and Apple and Google are taking the least privacy intrusive approach by using Bluetooth, when compared to GPS, which will make it difficult for personal identifying data to be collected.
The two companies have also made it clear that the system will not be used to correlate data which can be used for tracking individuals for marketing purposes. There is however a very slim possibility for marketers to intercept the cryptographic keys broadcast by mobile phones to track individuals for marketing purposes.
Another challenge comes in the form of false positives. It is not yet clear how users will be able to enter information about a diagnosis and there is a risk that people who are self-diagnosing may enter false information. Also spammers may intentionally flood the system with false data. To prevent false positives, health workers may be included in the process by making use of bar-codes to confirm diagnoses, for example, to ensure that accurate information is entered in the system.
Whilst viruses cannot go through walls, Bluetooth does, and false positives may arise when people may be in close proximity which may not necessarily mean in contact to spread the virus. To mitigate this source of false positives, Bluetooth signal strength will also be used to determine contact or lack thereof.