Apple and Google today said they’re working together on Bluetooth interoperability between Android and iOS devices to empower coronavirus tracking apps for smartphones. Apple and Google own the world’s two most widely used mobile operating systems. The news was announced today in a joint Apple–Google statement and will enable tracking of close proximity between people across Android and iOS devices.
“First, in May, both companies will release APIs that enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. These official apps will be available for users to download via their respective app stores,” the statement reads.
Apple and Google also plan to create a Bluetooth tracing platform that will allow users to opt-in and share their tracking history with government health authorities tracking the spread of the coronavirus.
Apple and Google have faced questions in recent days from U.S. Senators about COVID-19 location data and data collection practices. Empowering third-party developers making proximity tracing apps could help power automated contact tracing, which proponents say may be crucial to resuming normal life and economic activity in the coming weeks.
“Through close cooperation and collaboration with developers, governments and public health providers, we hope to harness the power of technology to help countries around the world slow the spread of COVID-19 and accelerate the return of everyday life,” the joint statement reads.
Bluetooth apps for contact tracing are being considered by a growing number of nations. Private Kit: Safe Paths, for example, is now in conversations with over 30 countries around the world as well as the World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for its coronavirus tracing app. On Thursday, makers of Private Kit: Safe Paths said they achieved a breakthrough in interoperability between Android and iOS devices.
Draft Bluetooth and cryptology documentation released as part of the Apple-Google news says the contact tracing method will use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and a 32-byte tracing key, a cryptographically protected code, to log contact between devices.
Makers of existing apps like COVID Watch who succeeded in exchanging anonymized code between iOS and Android devices for the purposes of coronavirus tracing say they’ve encountered Android bugs and that iPhones can’t run the tracking app in the background, requiring users to keep their phones open for Bluetooth tracking to work for iOS devices. TraceTogether, an app launched by government authorities in Singapore, encountered similar issues with iOS devices.
Privacy advocates in favor of decentralized methods of Bluetooth tracking with smartphones call it one of the most privacy-conscious methods of contact tracing available today.
In response to the news, ACLU surveillance and cybersecurity counsel Jennifer Granick said the effectiveness of contact tracing apps will depend on trust and voluntary use and should not include any centralized repository of user data.
“To their credit, Apple and Google have announced an approach that appears to mitigate the worst privacy and centralization risks, but 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,” Granick said in a statement shared with VentureBeat.
Updated 11:54 to add ACLU statement.