Apple and Google have launched a new system for tracing the spread of the novel coronavirus by allowing users to share data via Bluetooth with government and health agencies.
The joint project announced Friday by two of Silicon Valley’s largest companies would create a voluntary contact-tracing network using Bluetooth Low Energy transmissions.
According to the companies, the data about individuals one has interacted with would be kept on that person’s phone and only used for contact tracing by public health officials.
The system would then notify individuals if they have come into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Apple and Google plan to roll out a pair of application programming interfaces (APIs) in mid-May for health officials to use the tracing system in their apps.
After the APIs are released, the companies will work to enable Bluetooth-based contact tracing into underlying platforms and then let people opt in to using the system with a broader range of applications.
Experts say that contact tracing has emerged as one of the most promising methods for containing the impact of COVID-19.
However, it has also raised privacy concerns from critics who say such systems would allow for invasive digital surveillance.
The system announced by Apple and Google on Friday seeks to alleviate some of those concerns.
Using Bluetooth for tracing means that people’s physical location would not be collected, just the identities of the people they have been in contact with.
Information will also be anonymized, using an anonymous key to broadcast information that changes every 15 minutes.
Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that those privacy steps appear “to mitigate the worst privacy and centralization risks,” but cautioned that “there is still room for improvement.”
“We will remain vigilant moving forward to make sure any contract tracing app remains voluntary and decentralized, and used only for public health purposes and only for the duration of this pandemic,” she said.
Updated at 3 p.m.