At a time when governments, health professionals, scientists and the common man all over the world have come together in this battle against Coronavirus, the two biggest rivals from Silicon Valley have come together too.
In an unusual move, the two rivals, Apple and Google announced that they would launch an app together in the mid of May. This app would facilitate contact tracing during this pandemic.
The new technology that was outlined in white papers published by Apple and Google. It relies on low energy Bluetooth signals to allow phones to communicate with one another. This particular system uses a version of the BLE Beacon system that has been developed and modified over the years. The system works as a two-way code swap between phones.
Phases of the Project
This project will be rolled out in two phases and will be an opt-in only project. The governments will not be able to mandate the use of this technology. In the first phase, those who want to opt into the program will have to download an app.
These apps would be made available by the public health authorities from Apple and Google app stores. Once you opt-in, your phone will periodically send out a small, unique and anonymous piece of code called keys. It simultaneously scan for beacons coming from nearby devices.
Public health authorities will incorporate the contract tracing API into their apps made available by Apple and Google. However, this would be effective only when most of the population downloads the app. When Singapore launched its contact tracing app called TraceTogether, it saw only 12% adoption which defies the entire purpose.
To address this, the companies have brought in phase 2 wherein, it will bake the contact tracing feature into the software of the phone so that people will not even have to download an app. If a person comes in contact with another person infected with the virus, they will be notified.
The system will send a prompt to download an app suggested by the public health authority. Since not all devices are supported by software updates, Google will distribute this update through Google Play Services instead.
Apple believes that it would be able to address most devices as about 77% percent of its devices introduced in the last four years were running on iOS 13, Apple’s latest software.
Concerns Regarding the App
Now, like any other development, this project doesn’t come without drawbacks or concerns. The concern that tops the list is a threat to privacy. Apple and Google, however, say that the app has been built keeping in mind concerns regarding privacy. The keys that are broadcasted from each device are just a string of numbers with no identifiable information.
When people test positive, their identities are not revealed, only the devices that were nearby are notified. The keys do not store any location information. They also keep changing every 15 minutes making it impossible to track devices for extended periods. Since the key matching process happens locally, there is no centralized server.
This makes the possibility of a breach even more difficult. Being an opt-in project only in both the phases, the companies can also disable the beacon broadcasting system when it is no longer needed. No external party apart from the two companies, public health authorities and the government will have access to any of the information pertaining to the app.
Another concern that arises is, how will the companies prevent cases of fake positives? There may be instances where people can claim to be infected even when they aren’t to simply create panic. The companies are trying to route the process through the public health authorities.
Accordingly, anybody who tested positive would be given a code by their health provider. Only when one provides the authentic code will the system begin notifying its contacts.
A drawback that this app poses is that even though it can trace contacts it is incapable of testing the duration of exposure to the infected person and also the proximity. Barriers like walls, backpacks or poor signals can also interfere with the signals broadcasted.
Even though human beings are the best and fastest at contact tracing, this app might complement their efforts. It can help by identifying the unknown contacts that might have been exposed to an infected person like a passerby.
But, the disclaimer here is that the passerby must have downloaded the app as well. How beneficial will this app be when almost every country has moved past contact tracing to the next three steps? These are the steps that are the most crucial in the fight against Coronavirus that is testing, social distancing and isolating.
Similar Efforts by Different Countries
These efforts by the Apple-Google duo and Singapore are however not the only digital efforts in this battle. Another similar project led by MIT called Private Automated Contact Tracing or PACT uses a similar approach as Apple and Google.
India also has an app called Aarogya Setu to facilitate contact tracing. Hong Kong fastened digital bracelets to travelers arriving at its airports to contact trace and keep a track of movement during the quarantine. The nonprofit Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing project also uses a similar technology like Apple and Google to trace contacts of those infected.
With several such measures being adopted simultaneously all over the world to combat the spread of this deadly Coronavirus, by the end of it all, the world will be better prepared to deal with anything even remotely similar to this pandemic that is shaking faiths all over.