Apple and Google aren’t developing coronavirus-tracking apps, but on Monday they shared examples of what those apps could look like. Most notably, the tech giants detailed what the public health authorities who can use their contact-tracing APIs to create those apps can’t do: namely, they can’t track your location and they can’t use your data to advertise to you.
No one will be required to download the apps created by health agencies, unlike similar apps rolled out in other countries, so people will have to install them and opt into notifications if they want to see whether anyone else using the app who has tested positive for covid-19 has come within Bluetooth range.
Apple and Google yesterday published step-by-step screenshots of how public health authorities could design their apps, starting with sign-up. For the exposure-tracking apps to be useful, you’ll need to enable notifications (though you don’t have to, and you can also turn them off at any time). You can share a positive covid-19 diagnosis within the app, which you verify by working with your local public health department to obtain a unique test identification number and the date of the test.
The app shares random Bluetooth identifiers generated by your phone with other devices that have come within Bluetooth range of you within the last two weeks. (Those identifiers change every 10-20 minutes, Apple explained, which the company says makes it impossible to track you.) If you have notifications enabled, your phone will receive an alert as to the date of possible exposure to covid-19 and what steps you can take.
Here’s what a public health authority’s contact-tracing app could look like on an iPhone:
The process is the same on Android, as you can see in the screenshots the two tech companies publicly shared:
This isn’t how contact-tracing works in countries where using an app is government-mandated. Those apps, which are being rolled out in India and Russia, are privacy nightmares, as we’ve already detailed. The NHS is reportedly displeased with Google and Apple’s efforts because the data collected is decentralised as opposed to routed through a government server. But it might not matter how secure Apple and Google have made their APIs if people don’t trust the public health departments’ apps. A recent study showed that more than 40 per cent of consumers don’t plan to use one of the contact-tracing apps, because they don’t trust tech companies.
Exposure-tracking apps are just one part of the effort to curb the spread of covid-19. States are hiring thousands of human contact tracers to find covid-19 patients who don’t have access to smartphones or who might hesitate to report their diagnosis to an app.