Tech

Explained: How the Apple & Google COVID-19 Contact Tracing technology works

No question the idea of tracking users is not one that Apple would normally be associated with – their company and products are built on the principals of privacy, so the idea of Apple and Google working together to essentially track smartphone users for the purpose of COVID-19 Contact Tracing might seem a bit strange. Here’s what it all means.

Apple and Google have come together and joined forces to work on a technology in their smartphones to help public health authorities with the tracing of people who have come into contact with a person who has tested positive to COVID-19.

As soon as mid next month (May), both Google and Apple will release an update to their software that will allow apps such as the Australian Government’s COVID-19 App to be enabled with this contact tracing technology.

Down the track, that will expand to an even deeper update to the smartphone operating system which will allow contact tracing to be done even if there is no specific app installed.

How it works:

Your smartphone has Bluetooth on it. The App you install (and later the Operating System itself) will shout out loud to other Bluetooth devices within close proximity.

Of course, this is all very silent, you don’t even know it’s happening.

You walk up to the local shops. Standing correctly at a distance from other shoppers, your phone is sending out a code, those other phones, they are listening out to that code and making a note of it.

Over time, your phone builds up a list of all the phone’s you’ve come in contact with. However, there’s no names, in fact there’s no identifying details. More on that shortly.

There’s no way the user of any phone can look at a list of codes, or even get a sense of how many phones or people they’ve come into contact with – it’s really just a matter of keeping tabs – for now.

If you test positive to COVID-19, the health department might ask you to install this app. Or, they will ask if you have the app, and if you do, they will verify some details within the app, and essentially “flag” you on the system as a positive case of COVID-19.

At that time, your smartphone Bluetooth code (actually many codes, see anonymity for more on that), is uploaded to the “cloud”.

Everyone else’s phones in the world are checking ever now and then for any new “positive” cases being listed on the cloud. If a new case is listed, your phone grabs that smartphone code, and on your phone – not on some remote serve – your phone looks at it’s contact history to determine if the owner has been in contact with that positive case.

If not, nothing happens, you never even know your phone is looking.

However, if you are confirmed to have been in contact with a positive case, you are notified, and can then follow the steps as advised within the app.

Is it anonymous?

100%. In fact, your phone transmit a new and unique code every 15 minutes. So even if there was some way to find out your code at one given moment in time, that code expires shortly after.

There’s no personal information stored alongside your Bluetooth “beacon” code – there’s also no location tracking. At no point does this proposed system check or record your location.

It’s only job is to record proximity to other devices, and thus determine if you’ve been close to a positive case.

Will it drain my battery?

These days, the Bluetooth system on smartphone is known as “Bluetooth Low Energy” which allows it to devices to ping each other without using much power at all.

In fact, a device can sit listening for a Ping from another without using any power, only powering up to save that information once it’s requested and sent.

Can anyone with the app list themselves as COVID-19, thus creating a panic?

No. The idea of the system is that Health authorities are the only ones capable of “flagging” a beacon – or phone – as Positive. Technically how this is done is yet to be seen, but that is the clear intention.

Do I need to download an App?

Initially yes. The first phase of this plan is for Google and Apple to develop an API – which is an interface for App developers to use that will enable all this Bluetooth cross-platform technology.

However, in the second phase, which is a few months away, the beacon and Bluetooth sharing technology will be updated at the device level. This means anyone with the latest update will be able to be part of the tracing, with even notifications of interactions with positive cases being notified. At that stage, the App installation would be required to essentially take the next steps.

Is it Opt-in or Opt-Out?

Opt-In. While an Opt-Out system would get far more widespread coverage, you can only imagine the privacy headlines. As such, the system does rely on the good-will of users to take part. It’s believed a 50% use rate could have a dramatic effect on the pandemic.

Will it work on All Android phones?

Hard to say all, because there are some very very old phones out there, however, this update will NOT require a full operating system upgrade which normally is done through manufacturers (like Samsung) and telcos. Instead, Google plan to place this capability within what they call “Google Play Services” so it can run without wider update requirements.

What about after the Pandemic ends?

Google and Apple say the contact tracing or broadcast system can be switched off on a Region by Region basis as and when it is no longer needed.

Explained: How the Apple & Google COVID-19 Contact Tracing technology works
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