A couple of days ago, Apple and Google came together in what was an unprecedented announcement. After all, we are in the middle of an unprecedented health crisis around the world. The two big tech companies are working on solutions that uses the Bluetooth technology in smartphones to allow government and health agencies to track and notify you in case you have met with or have come in close proximity with someone who is now confirmed to have been affected by the Coronavirus, or COVID-19. Apple and Google have also detailed the privacy aspects and how the data will be collected. The expectation is that this, once implemented, will work seamlessly on Android phones and the iPhones, which will make it simpler for government agencies to collect and make sense of the data that is presented, and raise an alarm to any user in case they need to.
The proposed solution will work in two stages. The first are the APIs which will be available on iOS for iPhones and Android for a variety of Android-powered smartphones. The second will be an integration of contact tracing tech within Android and iOS, for instant access to all users.
This is How BLE Tracing works
The contact tracing is essentially a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) service registered with the Bluetooth SIG with 16-bit Universally Unique Identifier, UUID 0xFD6F, that is designed to enable proximity sensing of Rolling Proximity Identifier between devices for the purpose of computing an exposure event. The two phones, which could be your phone and someone else’s phone in your proximity, will exchange anonymous identifier keys. All the discovered data shall be kept on the device, which is your smartphone. These logs will be uploaded with the user’s consent in case they are confirmed to have been infected by Coronavirus, or COVID. These logs will then be downloaded by your smartphone and matched against the logs your phone has collected via Bluetooth tracing over time. If your logs match any smartphone user who has now been confirmed with COVID, you will see a notification on your phone alerting you about it with steps on what to do next.
Have you also read?If you have met someone who has now been confirmed with Coronavirus, or COVID, your phone will be able to notify you and the health authorities. (Image: Apple and Google)
You do not require any location data for this to work
Apple and Google say that at no point does the Bluetooth based contract tracing require any location data access. It can work very well without it too. “The Contact Tracing Bluetooth Specification does not require the user’s location; any use of location is completely optional to the schema. In any case, the user must provide their explicit consent in order for their location to be optionally used,” they say.
All the data stays private, but with caveats
Apple and Google also take pains to emphasise on the point that the list of contacts never leaves your phone, list of people who you may have come in range with never leaves your phone and at no point is the data shared with Apple or Google, in case of a positive test. Only public health authorities will have access to that data—though Apple and Google will have no say in who these authorities then share the data with.
The roadmap for Apple and Google’s Contact Tracing Rollout
Apple and Google say that they will roll out the application programming interfaces (APIs) for this on iOS and Android respectively by mid-May, which will allow health authorities to use apps that users can opt-in for to collect data. They say these official apps by health agencies and governments will be available for download via the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. Countries including India, Singapore, Taiwan and China, to name a few, have contact tracing platforms and apps in place, and smartphone users can download these and share data. In India, we are specifically talking about the Aarogya Setu app.
The second stage would be where Apple and Google will work on a Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform which will also be used by apps made by health authorities to track user proximity data—and this will be built into iOS and Android and the option will be available to all users without having to download another app.
This is why Contract Tracing is critical
Contact tracing is critical in curbing the Coronavirus spread around the country and indeed around the world. A person who may be infected with the COVID-19 virus may not show any signs or symptoms for as many as 14 days more but can spread the infection in the meantime through cough, for instance. As and when a confirmed COVID case is taken in for treatment, health authorities scramble to track as many people this infected person may have met in the past few days. “Contact Tracing makes it possible to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus by alerting participants of possible exposure to someone who they have recently been in contact with, and who has subsequently been positively diagnosed as having the virus,” says Apple.