Last week, Apple and Google announced their joint effort to counter the COVID-19 pandemic by the introduction of a new contact tracing system. The system is said to track the spread of the new coronavirus via BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) transmissions. Where doctors and paramedics are doing their part, so are software developers it seems.
Overview of the System
According to Google and Apple, the contact tracing system will help combat the spread of the coronavirus by alerting users if they’ve exposed to, or been in the proximity of someone, who has tested positive with the virus. The new system would use Bluetooth communication to establish a contact-tracing network between phones who have been in close proximity to each other. Official public healthcare apps will get access to this data and users who have downloaded the apps can report if they’ve tested positive for the COVID-19 virus and The expected release date for this new service falls in May and will be available for both Android and iOS devices.
Contact tracing is so crucial in the control of a viral outbreak as such. South Korea has been identified as one of the top countries to successfully control the outbreak simply through isolating cases, testing and above all contact tracing.
How Apple and Google will track COVID-19 with Bluetooth
Apple and Google are geared up for the implementation of this service which will essentially take place in two steps:
First, in May, both companies will release APIs (Application Program Interface) which will enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using official public health apps. By interoperability, we mean the ability of systems or software to exchange information. The apps in question will available for users via their respective app stores.
In the second step, once the API is complete, Apple and Google will try to broaden this contact tracing platform by using underlying operating systems. This would allow for more users to participate at a time with more apps and government health authorities and bring the system on people’s phones by default.
How Will Contact-Tracing Work?
The contact tracing network is dependent on Bluetooth. Let’s say you’ve tested positive for COVID-19, you can report that you’ve tested positive on the app in your phone and this will, in turn, alert people who have been in close proximity with you in the past 14 days, that of course while keeping your private information secure.
As we’ve discussed before, the service will work on Bluetooth LE. Bluetooth LE itself works in contrast to classic Bluetooth by consuming lesser power. Unlike systems that store your physical location, Bluetooth will track signals of nearby devices at 5-minute intervals and store the connections in a dedicated database.
Each device connected to the app will generate a tracing key; a daily tracing key will be derived from the tracing key after every 24 hours to ensure privacy, so these keys are constantly changing even after being detected. Once a user confirms that he/she has been tested positive for COVID-19, a diagnosis key is uploaded with their consent.
Next, their diagnosis keys and associated Day Numbers are uploaded to a ‘Diagnosis Server’ which will aggregate the diagnosis keys from users tested positive and send them over to clients suing contact tracing.
In this way people who have been in contact with the diagnosed person will be notified. These people should then quarantine themselves or test themselves if they show any symptoms of infection.
The Biggest Unanswered Questions Right Now
That being said, there are concerns and questions being raised.
Are government officials and public health organizations willing to go on board with this? Although contact tracing has been seen before in countries such as South Korea and Singapore, we haven’t’ seen an attempt at such a large scale. But if this pandemic isn’t brought under control within the next few months, we may need a system exactly as Google and Apple are proposing.
Will this system keep my information secure? Apple and Google have stated that user privacy is their utmost concern and there are steps to ensure your privacy. The use of anonymous keys which cycle every 15 minutes is among the few steps being taken.
And then finally, there is a question of range and accuracy. Although Bluetooth is pretty flexible, how much of a range are we expected to see? Also what if you’ve been notified because you’ve been sitting in adjacent rooms with an infected individual and not exactly ‘in close proximity’?
That being said, Apple and Google are both working on this service and we’ll be getting updates as we go. There are some complexities and technical issues to be dealt with here and there but a tech-based contact tracing system could be quite useful when all we’ve got to do is implement it in pre-existing devices.
Image Courtesy: Apple/Google