Google, Apple revise contact tracing system after privacy feedback

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One of the hardest things to do in trying to contain the spread of COVID-19 is to backtrack through all the places and people someone had contact with. Earlier this month, Apple and Google announced they were developing a system to make contact tracing easier which government health organizations can use to develop an app to facilitate contact tracing. Privacy is a major concern with this system and now after getting feedback, the two tech giants are revising the system and renaming it to “exposure notification”.

The system they are building basically will use anonymous Bluetooth logging to track whoever a COVID-19 positive individual might have come in contact with and inform them so they can get tested as well. This has been one of the most challenging aspects of the containment of the pandemic. So what Google and Apple are developing is an API for Bluetooth that would create an ongoing log on users’ phones and all the data from the past 14 days will be stored. This can be used when a person tests positive later on.

Data privacy is, of course, a major concern for a system like this and so after the preliminary approach was announced and feedback collected, there are now some adjustments to the system. The Bluetooth metadata will now be encrypted and the numbers identifying users will be randomly generated with new numbers each day. The API will also now share the strength of a Bluetooth signal so that it will lessen false-positives.

The data will break down the total time of contact between 5 and 30 minutes in 5-minute intervals. How long it had been since contact was made will also now be shown to avoid the exposure time being used to identify who that contact might be. And the system will now be called “exposure notification” instead of contact tracing, although the latter is, of course, more commonly known.

They are planning to launch the first iteration by May, although it is up to government health organizations and other agencies to create the apps that will use it and to encourage people to install it on their devices. Later on, they do plan to integrate this in the underlying OS so there will be no need fro a separate app.

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