This is a big one. The makers of most of the world’s smartphones are going to work together to build technology that will allow public health organizations to do “contact tracing,” the ability to track the interactions of people diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. Contact tracing has to be a major part of tracking virus hotspots once shelter-in-place conditions conclude.
The joint press release says:
Apple and Google will be launching a comprehensive solution that includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing. Given the urgent need, the plan is to implement this solution in two steps while maintaining strong protections around user privacy.
Smartphone technology allows us to have the best contact tracing ever imagined, because all of our phones are capable of tracking all of our movements—and thereby showing who has come into contact with people who turned out to be infected. But the privacy ramifications are enormous. That’s why it’s encouraging that the statement from Apple and Google repeatedly discusses ensuring privacy and consent for any contact-tracing program.
The companies also posted a preliminary set of technical documents that uses Bluetooth for identification and cryptography to ensure privacy. I’d be shocked if a lot of this technology wasn’t lifted from Apple’s existing Find My technology, which similarly allows unique devices to be identified while maintaining the privacy of individual users.