Apple and Google are releasing their much-anticipated “exposure notification” technology to help global health authorities track the coronavirus pandemic. Governments around the world can now use the technology in their own contact tracing apps, subject to approval by the two tech giants.
Contact tracing—tracking down those who may have been exposed to an infectious person—is an important and proven strategy that scientists have used to successfully fight outbreaks ranging from Ebola to HIV. In the last few months, many countries have been working to use various technologies, including mobile-phone apps, to try to keep up with the scale and speed of the pandemic.
Over two dozen countries have already released their own contact tracing apps, but the Apple-Google release is expected to dramatically accelerate the process: their partnership means almost all smartphones worldwide will be able to detect each other and share information about potential exposure to the disease. Countries developing their own systems have run into both technical and civil liberties problems that the Silicon Valley project hopes to address.
Apple and Google said that 22 national governments on five continents, as well as several American states, are being granted access to the API today. There are billions of people in the participating countries, but some of the notable omissions include France, which has locked horns with the tech companies over how their API works, and the United Kingdom, which is still figuring out if it will use the Apple-Google system in its own efforts.
This technology has provided an illustration of the power and reach of Silicon Valley during a global crisis. Even as authorities in Europe, Asia, and North America pushed Apple and Google to allow location tracking or to build a centralized system, the companies played hardball and won. They built a privacy-first decentralized tracing system that requires multiple layers of consent, uses Bluetooth signals instead of location tracking, and is intended to be more reliable for people with older phones.
“What we’ve built is not an app — rather, public health agencies will incorporate the API into their own apps that people install,” Apple and Google said in a statement today. “Our technology is designed to make these apps work better. Each user gets to decide whether or not to opt in to exposure notifications; the system does not collect or use location from the device; and if a person is diagnosed with covid-19, it is up to them whether or not to report that in the public health app. User adoption is key to success, and we believe that these strong privacy protections are also the best way to encourage use of these apps.”
Both companies say that as the pandemic ends in different countries, they will shut the tracing technology down.
Such technology may help tackle the scale of the pandemic and be part of a process for reopening economies around the world, but epidemiologists and technologists broadly agree that there is no way apps can solve or even lead on this problem alone. Contact tracing typically requires real human beings to do much of the hard work. Experts say America will need over 100,000 tracers for the effort.