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Apple, Google to track virus with phones

Apple and Google launched a major joint effort to leverage smartphone technology to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

New software the companies plan to add to phones would make it easier to use Bluetooth wireless technology to track down people for who may have been infected by coronavirus carriers.

The idea is to help national or regional governments roll out apps for so-called “contact tracing” that will run on iPhones and Android phones alike.

The technology works by harnessing short-range Bluetooth signals. Using the Apple-Google technology, contact-tracing apps would gather a record of other phones with which they came into close proximity.

Such data can be used to alert others who might have been infected by known carriers of the novel coronavirus, although only in cases where the phones’ owners have installed the apps and agreed to share data with public-health authorities.

Software developers have already created such apps in countries including Singapore and China to try to contain the pandemic. In Europe, the Czech Republic says it will release such an app after Easter. Britain, Germany and Italy are also developing their own tracing tools.

Privacy and civil liberties activists have warned that such apps need to be designed so governments cannot abuse them to track their citizens. Apple and Google said in a rare joint announcement that user privacy and security are baked into the design of their plan.

Asked about the Google-Apple effort at his daily news briefing, President Donald Trump called it “very interesting”, but expressed concern that “a lot of people worry about it in terms of a person’s freedom. We’re going to take a look at that”.

Security experts note that technology alone cannot effectively track down and identify people who may have been infected by COVID-19 carriers.

Such efforts will require other tools and teams of public health care workers to locate people in the physical world, they say. In South Korea and China, such efforts have included the use of credit-card and public-transit records.

In general, epidemiologists say contact tracing won’t be effective without widely available testing.

Given the great need for effective contact-tracing – a tool epidemiologists have long employed to contain infectious disease outbreaks – Google and Apple will roll out their changes in two phases.

In May, they will release software that will support public-health apps for both Android and iOS phones. In coming months, they will also build this functionality directly into the underlying phone operating systems.

On Friday, the companies released preliminary technical specifications for the effort, which they called “Privacy-Preserving Contact Tracing”.

Originally published as Apple, Google to track virus with phones

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