Apple and Google Work Together to Combat COVID-19

By Chand Bellur

April 10, 2020 at 5:51 p.m. PDT

  • Apple and Google are fierce competitors with rival mobile operating systems.
  • The novel coronavirus pandemic has killed over 100,000 people around the world.
  • Apple and Google formed a partnership to develop private and secure contract tracing technology.

COVID-19 Pandemic Death Toll Over 100,000

The COVID-19 pandemic has yet to peak. In a matter of months, the disease has claimed over 100,000 lives, and infection rates have yet to plateau. Although there are some encouraging signs from South Korea, Germany, and New York, health officials and the public have resorted to drastic measures to achieve these goals.

Stay-at-home orders have much of the global population under lockdown. Massive layoffs, particularly in the United States, have taken a huge economic toll. Lifting stay-at-home orders requires a well-functioning public healthcare system. Health authorities must engage in extensive testing, trace contacts, and isolate potentially infected individuals.

While China has employed over 100,000 people to carry out public healthcare tasks, the U.S. doesn’t have much of a plan. Instead, the hopes are that the private sector will find a solution. Fortunately, Google and Apple are collaborating on a contact tracing system for COVID-19.

Google and Apple Collaborate on Contact Tracing Technology

Containing a pandemic is difficult. It requires a massive testing effort. Anyone who has come in contact with a COVID-19 positive individual must be isolated. This gigantic undertaking requires technology and human effort. Apple and Google are developing at least one part of the solution.

Software engineers use application programming interfaces (APIs) to develop software rapidly. These are essentially software libraries, enabling a developer to deliver robust solutions with far less coding.

Apple and Google are teaming up to develop APIs, enabling interoperability between Android and iOS. The functionality will allow third-party healthcare software developers to create opt-in contact tracing solutions.

Interoperability between Android and iOS is vital. Since the public uses both mobile operating systems, the two must communicate for optimal contact tracing.

While details of the collaboration are murky, it appears that developers will create apps that track user proximity. If a user gets a positive test, public health apps can quickly produce a list of contacts. The apps can notify these contacts, perhaps even monitoring the quarantine.

The second phase of the project employs Bluetooth technology to offer broader contact tracing. Bluetooth is an excellent option for detecting proximity between two users. This seems to imply that phase one will rely on WiFi hotspots and cellular towers for location tracking, which is less precise.

The U.S. and Europe have far more individual privacy laws than China. The fact that users must opt-in to the technology complicates some aspects of contact tracing. Those who defect may infect others.

Too Little, Too Late?

While other nations are far ahead of the U.S. in containing COVID-19, the solution from Apple and Google may not be enough. The first phase of the project, the APIs, won’t be available until the beginning of May. Health care authorities must then develop and deploy the software. Android and iOS users need to update their operating systems to run the new apps.

Given that the apps require users to opt-in, not everyone will be traceable. This is a huge problem with contract tracing technology. Even with the Bluetooth-based solution launching in a few months, users will need to opt-in for the sake of privacy. A few bad apples can ruin the whole bunch. Just a few people who don’t care or fear privacy violations can spread the disease.

Effective public health policy requires boots on the ground. Healthcare workers need to test, trace contacts, and isolate individuals where necessary. Apple and Google’s efforts are noble and earn them public relations value.

State governments will likely have better contact tracing infrastructure in place by the time Google and Apple’s solutions are fully deployed. Perhaps the tech titans’ deliverables will play a part in containing the pandemic. Unfortunately, the economy can’t be on lockdown, waiting for a technological miracle that’s months away.

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