A deeper look at Apple and Google’s joint technology to combat COVID-19

On April 10, Silicon Valley giants Apple and Google announced that they were joining hands to create operating system-level technology to help speed up the contact tracing process.

Experts recommend contact tracing to slow the spread of infection as the COVID-19 crisis has significantly burdened public health systems in most countries. There are more than two million people infected by the virus worldwide.

In public health, contact tracing is the process of identifying persons who might have come in contact with an infected individual.

Contact tracing, and testing these individuals may significantly slow the spread of virus.

There are several apps that have been launched by countries and organisations in which users can key in their health information so that public health officials are made aware of the extant of COVID-19 spread in their regions. However, these apps provide only one part of the information; that is, who is infected, and not who they had come in contact with.

That’s where Apple and Google’s collaboration plays an important role. The duo is building application programming interfaces (APIs) to allow interoperability between Android and iOS devices for apps from public health authorities. Apart from APIs, Google and Apple are working on a BlueTooth-based contact tracing technology.

How it works

They will use BlueTooth LE (Low Energy) to detect nearby smartphones and exchange data, as well as enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities.

The data that is shared is anonymised; that is, any personally identifiable information is removed.

For instance, when two smartphone users, who have given consent to use the service, meet for about 10 minutes, their devices will exchange anonymous "identifier beacons", even if one is running on Android and the other on iOS.


If one of the users later tests positive for COVID-19, and they enter their test result in a public health authority’s app, their phone will upload the last 14 days of identifier beacon keys to the cloud.

Simultaneously, the unaffected user’s phone will be regularly checking beacon keys of everyone who has tested positive in their region.

Once it finds a match based on the infected person’s anonymous beacon, it will notify the unaffected person that they have come in contact with an individual tested positive for COVID-19. The notification will also include information on what they need to do next.

To provide privacy to users, the beacons change every 15 minutes. This means that the one who gets notified won’t know whom they had come in contact with. Also, people who tested positive won’t be identified by any other user of the service, Apple or Google.

The BlueTooth protocol has better privacy, is more robust than an API, gives the user a choice to opt-in, and alerts participants who have had exposure to someone who recently tested positive for COVID-19.

The big tech duo confirmed that this service will be used only for COVID-19 pandemic management, and that the feature won’t collect location data of individuals.

Can it be effective?

The service while advanced, is also limiting. To be effective, users need to install a public health app that uses Apple and Google’s service. And even if they are using an app, their health data needs to be inputted in it, and test results, if any.

And thirdly, the person who comes in contact with the infected person must have also opted for the service to get notified by public health authorities when someone whom they have met has been tested positive for COVID-19.

More importantly, over-reliance on technology may not help as much as investing in manual contract tracing, a Singaporean government official behind the country’s contact testing app said in a Medium post.

In an article titled: “Automated contact tracing is not a coronavirus panacea”, Jason Bay, Senior Director at Singapore’s Government Digital Services said: "If you ask me whether any Bluetooth contact tracing system deployed or under development, anywhere in the world, is ready to replace manual contact tracing, I will say without qualification that the answer is, No.”

Singapore deployed TraceTogether to build a Bluetooth contact tracer alongside public health authorities. And the team has been shadowing real-life contact tracers to understand their challenges. That showed that TraceTogether’s design and what epidemiologists need to fight COVID-19 can’t be matched, according to Bay.

“You cannot ‘big data’ your way out of a ‘no data’ situation. Period,” he added.

The iOS-Android clash

Apple and Google joining hands goes beyond two differing technologies coming together; it is two conflicting ideologies coming together to build something new. Apple and Google have diametrically opposite operating systems and app ecosystems.

Apple’s iOS is like a well-manicured garden with hand-picked apps. Its closed ecosystem makes integration tighter and is optimised to work perfectly with a few Apple devices. Contrast that with Android’s wild world. The operating system is used by a range of tablets, smartphones and other devices from a multitude of manufacturers, leaving it to the hardware to make the best use of the software.

That’s why an Android device needs a Snapdron 865 processor to give the same performance as an Apple A13 chip. The chipset used in iPhone 11 Pro features a six-core CPU with a 4GB of RAM. That should be considered similar to a mid-range Android device, not the top end.

On security, the general consensus among users is that iOS is slightly better than Android as Apple gives a consistent update for all devices in its closed ecosystem. The iOS’ set up makes it tougher to penetrate.

And finally, the app stores themselves. Apple’s App Store is well curated compared to Google’s Play Store. App developers have to go through several procedures before they can get their apps listed on the App Store.

Given these foundational differences in the set up and operations, it is going to be interesting to watch the two giants play together to see if Apple will let its guard down or Google will build a wall.

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Printable version | Jul 28, 2021 11:46:05 PM |

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