Apple and Google Could Be Better at Tracking the Coronavirus Than a Government
With access to just about every phone on the planet, the companies could give coronavirus containment efforts much-needed scale
One of the most obvious ways to mitigate the spread of a disease like Covid-19 is called contact tracing — tracking down everyone who is sick and mapping out who else they may have infected. To handle the current pandemic, countries like Singapore, the U.K., and Israel have launched or are in the process of developing apps that help retrace the steps of those who get infected. And last week, Google and Apple proposed a contact tracing system that could scale well beyond what a single government could accomplish.
Even if a single nation can convince citizens to download an app, a standalone app can only do so much. Singapore’s contact tracing app, called TraceTogether, for instance, has limitations like requiring users to keep the screen on and the app open in their pocket. If each country builds its own apps and tools, the apps won’t pick up on contact made between people crossing borders.
Google and Apple, however, can build tools directly into Android and iOS — the operating systems that inhabit just about every mobile phone in the world. That means their contract tracing tools would work better, avoiding awkward workarounds like needing to have an app open at all times, and could cover many more people.
The companies’ joint proposal relies on Bluetooth technology and has two phases.
The first phase is simple: iOS and Android will receive updates in May to add cross-platform APIs that allow apps built by public health authorities to perform contact tracing. Typically, Google and Apple would each implement their own APIs, which would each work differently. But with this change, the two are coordinating their efforts and building endpoints that work exactly the same regardless of platform or device — making it easy to share information between different types of devices.
Later in the year, Google and Apple plan to build their own contact tracing platform, right into the operating system, eliminating the need to…