Google and Apple join forces to facilitate tracking of patients via smartphones

Google and Apple join forces to facilitate tracking of patients via smartphones
Google and Apple join forces to facilitate tracking of patients via smartphones

The two American giants are working on a solution for tracing patients via Bluetooth, which will be made available to health authorities. It will eventually be integrated with iOS and Android.

To great ills, great remedies. Google and Apple have decided to join forces to help fight the new coronavirus, by implementing a solution for monitoring smartphone users at the heart of Android and iOS. It will use Bluetooth technology and will be accessible “through the use of applications from public health authorities”. Like, for example, StopCovid, the application promoted by the French authorities.

The joint project of Apple and Google, therefore, does not consist in providing a “turnkey” social tracking application. Rather, to provide the building blocks necessary to offer governments and health agencies who wish it a reliable, interoperable and privacy-friendly technical solution.

How it works

Concretely, the solution promoted by the two companies works in the same way as the platform underlying StopCovid. It is based on the exchange, between all iOS and Android smartphones of users who consent, of messages via Bluetooth when these are nearby for a certain time (at least ten minutes). GPS or triangulation by mobile relays are not used, which prohibits the location of individuals.

Google and Apple join forces to facilitate tracking of patients via smartphones 1

Each user is referenced by a unique and anonymous code, which changes regularly. Smartphones exchange these anonymized identifiers and store them locally. If one of the users subsequently tests positive for COVID-19, he can indicate this in the application provided by the government. Consequently, and with his consent, all the Bluetooth identifiers saved in his smartphone during the last fifteen days can be transferred to a server, to notify the individuals he has met during this period that they have been in contact with a patient.

Each user is referenced by a unique and anonymous code, which changes regularly. Smartphones exchange these anonymized identifiers and store them locally. If one of the users subsequently tests positive for COVID-19, he can indicate this in the application provided by the government. Consequently, and with his consent, all the Bluetooth identifiers saved in his smartphone during the last fifteen days can be transferred to a server, to notify the individuals he has met during this period that they have been in contact with a patient.

Google and Apple join forces to facilitate tracking of patients via smartphones 2

As the Bluetooth identifiers are anonymized, neither the people who have been in contact with the person tested positive, nor the authorities, nor Google or Apple will be able to know who was infected and who was in contact with him.

A two-step plan

Starting in May, Apple and Google will provide programming interfaces (APIs) that will provide tracking applications with interoperability between Android and iOS systems, to facilitate the sharing of Bluetooth information between the two platforms.

But in a second step, they are both working on a further integration of this technology in their respective OS.

“Apple and Google will work to develop a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracking platform, integrating this functionality into the underlying platforms. It is a more robust solution than an API, which would allow more people to participate, if they choose to join, as well as interaction with a wider ecosystem of applications related to government health officials, “ reads the press release from Google.

Many outstanding questions

This unprecedented association between the two giants is inspired by work already carried out, in particular the DP-3T protocol – developed in Europe – on which the application developed in France was to be based. Google and Apple want to be very reassuring about privacy, but the integration of tracking technology – even anonymous – at the heart of their OS will certainly raise in the coming month’s many privacy issues. The two firms, however, promise to “openly publish information on their work to allow its analysis by third parties. “

We also do not know if Bluetooth alone will be really effective: this technology could cause many false positives, such as untimely exchanges of information with a neighbor you never come across, for example. On the other hand, without a critical mass of users and without a massive testing policy, such technology will not be very useful.

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