(Reuters) – Apple Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google said on Friday that they will work together to create contact tracing technology that aims to slow the spread of the coronavirus by allowing users to opt into logging other phones they have been near.
The planned technology also throws the weight of the tech leaders into a global conflict between privacy advocates who favor a decentralized system to trace contacts and governments in Europe and Asia pushing centralized approaches that have technical weaknesses and potentially let governments know with whom people associate.
“With Apple and Google, you get all the public health functions you need with a decentralized and privacy-friendly app,” said Michael Veale, University College London legal lecturer involved in European contact tracing system DP3T. Centralized solutions such as those proposed in Britain and Germany would no longer work under the new technology, he said.
To be effective, the Silicon Valley system would require millions of people to opt-in the system, trusting the technology companies’ safeguards, as well as smooth oversight by public health systems.
The companies said they started developing the technology two weeks ago to streamline technical differences between Apple’s iPhones and Google’s Android that had stymied the interoperation of some existing contact tracing apps.
Under the plan, users’ phones with the technology will emit unique Bluetooth signals. Phones within about six feet can record anonymous information about encounters.
People who test positive for the virus can opt to send an encrypted list of phones they came near to Apple and Google, which will trigger alerts to potentially exposed users to seek more information. Public health authorities would need to sign off that an individual has tested positive before they can send on the data.
“To their credit, Apple and Google have announced an approach that appears to mitigate the worst privacy and centralization risks,” Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said.