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Google and Apple team up to build a coronavirus contact tracing system using Bluetooth

Google and Apple team up to build a coronavirus contact tracing system using Bluetooth
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

In the fight against the novel coronavirus, experts agree: one of the key ways in stopping the spread of COVID-19 is contact tracing. This means that, in some way, researchers should be able to tell people if they've been exposed to the virus based on an infected person's movements. 

But how is that done? While other countries have implemented measures meant to receive this kind of location and movement data, folks in the United States may be a little more hesitant, as it would mean potentially releasing your data to authorities and relinquishing your privacy. 

But now, Google and Apple are teaming up to create a supposedly secure way for you to share your movement data without potentially compromising your privacy. The joint announcement reads, "Google and Apple are announcing a joint effort to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design."

In a nutshell, people would opt into a voluntary contact-tracing network by downloading an app, and officials would have access to the information input by people who report being diagnosed with COVID-19. From there, other phones who were in close proximity to the phone of the infected person would be notified about possible exposure. 

Apple and Google plan to introduce a pair of iOS and Android APIs in mid-May, which would eventually eliminate the need for people to download the app, and tracing functionality would be built into the operating systems. 

What this means for your privacy

Of course, any talk of location or data sharing  makes many people nervous. Google and Apple plan on curtailing the issue of data privacy by opting for Bluetooth technology instead of using GPS data for contact tracing. 

The difference is that Bluetooth doesn't track a person's location like GPS does, and instead, the method would involve picking up the signals of nearby phones every 5 minutes and storing that information in a database. Google and Apple also say that the method would prevent people from being identified. 

Of course the method isn't perfect - and though combined they make up our list of the best smartphones, not everyone owns an iOS or Android device. To add to that, some areas have limited connectivity (check out the best cell phone providers if you are experiencing limited coverage). But it's certainly a start to making contact tracing one of the primary ways we stop the spread of the coronavirus. 

Google and Apple highlight coronavirus resources

In addition to teaming up to fight the coronavirus, both companies are implementing their own features to help folks cope with the fear, loneliness, and confusion many are experiencing nowadays. Of course, due to COVID-19, many people either choose not to see a doctor or cannot leave their homes to see one, which has created a boom in telehealth. Google has started showing virtual care options more prominently in search results by adding a card showing a healthcare provider's link dedicated to its virtual care information, among other measures. 

Apple, on its end, will be making it easier for folks to find coronavirus testing sites in the new Apple Maps update. Confirmed testing locations will be able to register as such and also indicate whether or not patients need an appointment or a referral, among other information.