Apple is the developer of iOS. Google is the company behind Android. The two operating systems power the vast majority of smartphones in use.

Some countries – including Singapore, Israel, South Korea and Poland – are already using people’s handsets to issue coronavirus contagion alerts. The two companies believe their approach – designed to keep users, whose participation would be voluntary, anonymous – addresses privacy concerns.

So what is contact tracing?

iPhone and Android users will be able to opt into a feature that uses Bluetooth to create a temporary and private diary of sorts. This diary will record interactions of close proximity with other smartphone users who opt in to using the feature. If a person tests positive for COVID-19 and uses the feature, each person using the feature who has been in contact with the infected person will be notified.

Location is never used, just instances of close proximity through Bluetooth signals, and the system doesn’t connect Bluetooth signals to specific users. The only relevant data is that a user has been in contact with someone who later tested positive for COVID-19.

How does contact tracing work?

Contact Tracing illustration

How do you participate?

Apple and Google are releasing contact-tracing features in two phases:

  • Starting in mid-May, apps can use a new contact-tracing API (application programming interface) that works with apps on iPhone and Android
  • Later this year, iOS and Android will receive updates to let users opt in to contact-tracing without installing an app

Apple isn’t just letting any developer use the API its building with Google. Only apps for official government health organizations will be able to use the contact-tracing feature.

Starting next month, Android and iPhone users will be able to download the app in their region that supports contact-tracing. Apple will also release a software update that makes the contact-tracing API function in the designated app.

A separate software update will be released in a few months that integrates the ability to opt-in to contact-tracing without downloading an app, although each region’s official health agency app will still be required for verifying positive COVID-19 cases.

Apple and Google have been working on the effort for about two weeks but have not externally revealed their plans until Friday.

If successful, the scheme could help countries relax lockdowns and border restrictions.

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