Apple and Google on Wednesday launched the much-anticipated smartphone technology that will automatically notify people if they may have been exposed to the coronavirus.
The companies said that 22 countries and several states in the United States are planning to create voluntary use applications using their software. The program uses Bluetooth technology to detect when someone who downloaded the app spent time near another user of the app who later tested positive for the virus.
Many governments have already tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to implement their own apps to combat the spread of COVID-19. Many of those applications have encountered technical problems on Apple and Android phones and have not been widely adopted. They often use the GPS geolocation system to track people’s location, but Apple and Google left this technology out of their new tool for privacy and accuracy concerns.
Health authorities, from Germany to states like Alabama and South Carolina, had hoped to use the Apple-Google model, while other governments have said that the privacy restrictions of tech giants will be an obstacle because public health workers will not have access to data.
The companies said they are not trying to replace contact tracing, an infection control pillar in which public health workers communicate with people who may have been exposed to an infected person. But they said their automatic “exposure notification” system can improve that process and delay the spread of the virus when asymptomatic carriers interact with people.
The identity of the application users will be protected by encryption and anonymous identification beacons that change frequently.
The companies said the new technology, the product of an unusual partnership between rival tech giants, solves some of the major technical challenges governments have had to develop applications that connect via Bluetooth. The app will make it easier for iPhone and Android phones to detect each other, regardless of borders, and fix some of the problems that led to previous apps quickly depleting mobile device batteries.