How Apple and Google’s joint technology to combat Covid-19 is going to work
We have reported about Apple and Google joining hands to create an operating system-level technology that will help speed up contact tracing. In case you have been terribly out of sync, you can read the report here.
Contact tracing is a recommended procedure to slow the spread of Covid-19 with more than two million people infected worldwide. The process helps identify person who might have come in contact with an infected individual and ensure they, and others around them, are tested. This can help slow down the spread of the virus.
Several apps, across iOS and Android platforms, have already been launched in various countries, like India's very own Aarogya Setu, that are using contact tracing. Users can key in their health information on these apps that public health officials can use to gauge the extent of Covid-19 spread in your region.
Apple and Google's collaboration is important because the companies are building application programming interfaces (APIs) to accommodate interoperability between Android and iOS devices for apps made by public health authorities. The companies are jointly working on a Bluetooth-based contact tracing tech that can be used on smartphones across OS platforms.
How is this tech going to work?
Bluetooth LE (low energy) will be used to detect smartphones near you and exchange data. This will also enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and therefore with government health authorities.
The data that is going to be shared is going to be anonymous, which means that personally identifiable information is removed.
Let's understand it this way - two smartphone users who have given consent to use the service meet for 10 minutes. Their devices exchange anonymous "identifier beacons" irrespective of whether they are on Android or iOS.
Later if either one of the users test positive, and he/she enters their test result in the app, the phone will upload the last 14 days of identifier beacon keys to the cloud. On the other hand, for the unaffected user, his/her phone will regularly check for beacon keys of everyone who has tested positive in the area.
If there is a match, based on the infected person's anonymous beacon, it will notify the unaffected user that someone they have come in contact with has tested positive for Covid-19. The notification will also include information on what needs to be done next.
For privacy, the beacons change every 15 minutes. Which means that when you are informed about coming in contact with an infected person, you will not know who it is. People who have tested positive will not be identified by any user of the service, no matter what the platform.
Bluetooth protocol has better privacy and gives users the choice to opt in. Apple and Google have confirmed that the service will only be used for Covid-19 tracing and not collect location data from users.
How effective is it?
The service has its limits. For this to work users need to install the public health app that uses Apple and Google's service, above and beyond any other health app they might be using. Also, users will have to feed in their health data and test results.
And not just this, if a user with the app comes in contact with someone who does not have the app it is not going to work. Relying on technology is not fool proof. No app, especially an app like this, can work unless it has been installed by everyone. You need collective data to be able to contact trace effectively.
Now, iOS VS Android
Think of Apple's closed ecosystem versus Android's open one. Apple's OS is about tight integration and optimsed to work perfectly between Apple devices. In contrast, Android's wide world is about a whole range of tabs and smartphones from multiple manufacturers where different hardware must make the best use of the one given software. Android cannot control hardware, Apple can.
Given this, it will be interesting to see how these two platforms work together.