Apple and Google join the Covid-19 fight with API tracking.

Apple & Google Work Together on Tech to Track Virus Spread via Phones

A quick example of how a merged effort between Google and Apple might help turn the corner on the spread of the COVID-19 virus. It’s about contact tracing and this is how a system like this might work:

Two people happen to be near each other for a period of time, let’s say 10 minutes. Their phones exchange the anonymous identifiers (which change every 15 minutes). Later on, one of those people is diagnosed with COVID-19 and enters it into the system via a Public Health Authority app that has integrated the API. With an additional consent, the diagnosed user allows his anonymous identifiers for the last 14 days to be transmitted to the system.

The person they came into contact with has a Public Health app on their phone that downloads the broadcast keys of positive tests and alerts them to a match. The app gives them more information on how to proceed from there.

It is invasive from a privacy standpoint, but from a medical/public health standpoint, it makes good sense. The program is detailed in an article on

The system uses on-board radios on a user’s device to transmit an anonymous ID over short ranges — using Bluetooth beaconing. Servers relay their last 14 days of rotating IDs to other devices, which search for a match. A match is determined based on a threshold of time spent and distance maintained between two devices.

If a match is found with another user that has told the system that they have tested positive, the user is notified and can take steps to be tested and to self-quarantine.

Sounds simple and effective, but it also gives access to your movements to companies and agencies. In the extraordinary circumstances of a COVID-19 outbreak, however, it may be the most effective tool. One such example is MIT’s efforts to use Bluetooth to create a privacy-conscious contact tracing tool that was inspired by Apple’s Find My system. The companies say that those organizations identified technical hurdles that they were unable to overcome and asked for help.

Techcrunch’s Jon Evans laid out the need for a broader tracing apparatus a week ago, along with the notion that you’d need buy-in from Apple and Google to make it happen. A user decides to participate or not, and has to cover the costs.

Both Apple and Google say that privacy and transparency are paramount in a public health effort like this one and say they are committed to shipping a system that does not compromise personal privacy in any way. This is a factor that has been raised by the ACLU, which has cautioned that any use of cell phone tracking to track the spread of COVID-19 would need aggressive privacy controls.

The article gives a picture breakdown of how the system works and has more information on this project.