Apple, Google contact-tracing tech draws govts’ attention

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 21 May 2020

Apple and Alphabet’s Google have officially launched their contact-tracing technology, which has already garnered interest from the health departments of more than 20 countries across the globe.

Last month, the rival tech giants announced a rare joint venture to enable the use of technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), with user privacy and security central to the design.

Across the world, governments and health authorities are working together with technology firms to find ways to treat or limit the spread of the COVID‑19 pandemic, which has infected over 5.1 million people, and claimed the lives of over 330 000, with more than two million recoveries globally.

Described by Apple and Google as “conventional”, the API-based contact-tracing system is designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus by tracking who a person has been in close contact with, enabling public health officials to contact, test, treat and advise people who may have been exposed to an affected person.

The contact-tracing technology consists of APIs and an operating system that enables interoperability between Android and iOS devices, using apps from public health authorities.

According to the companies, around 22 countries across the globe, including the US, Germany and Austria, have enquired about the technology; however, it is unclear how many will use it.

Some contact-tracing app developers from Austria, Germany and Switzerland told Reuters this week that they would be using the Apple-Google technology, while other governments said they are still weighing the pros and cons of the software.

SA’s health department told ITWeb it is unable to confirm at this stage if it will be using the technology.

“All of us at Apple and Google believe there has never been a more important moment to work together to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems,” according to a statement from the companies.

“Through close cooperation and collaboration with developers, governments and public health providers, we have harnessed the power of technology to help countries around the world slow the spread of COVID-19 and accelerate the return of everyday life.”

Access to the technology will be granted only to public health authorities, and their apps must meet specific criteria around privacy, security and data control, notes the statement.

The public health authority app will be able to access a list of beacons provided by users confirmed as positive for COVID-19, who have consented to sharing them.

Privacy, transparency and consent

Using a Bluetooth system that stores data on people’s phones, the Apple-Google technology works by tracking who a person has been in contact with – close enough to have potentially caught the virus.

When someone using a smartphone based on Apple or Google's code officially tests positive for COVID-19, the system can send a notification to anyone who was recently near that person, informing them to contact their local health authority and test for coronavirus.

While there are many similar contact-tracing technologies across the globe, the world’s top two smartphone software makers say the system has been designed to ensure Apple, Google or governments using the system are not able to access citizens’ mobile numbers and other sensitive information.

This has been one of several restrictions that governments have grappled with, when implementing contact-tracing tech in line with data protection laws.

Another issue is that some phones, for instance iPhones, have features that limit adoption and access to similar apps, resulting in governments experiencing technical glitches or seeing limited adoption.

The companies say their tech will be able to work on all Bluetooth-enabled phones.

“Privacy, transparency and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders.As part of this partnership, Google and Apple are releasing draft documentation for an exposure notification system in service of privacy-preserving contact-tracing,” notes the statement.

Various governments across the globe have rolled out their own digital contact-tracing solutions, including China, Singapore, Australia, France and the UK.

In early April, South Africa’s minister of communications and digital technologies, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, announced government had set up a national tracing database to determine the exposure of persons infected with COVID-19.

She also confirmed the industry collectively agreed to provide data analytic services to facilitate the containment of COVID-19.

Government is reportedly being assisted by a group of researchers from the University of Cape Town to develop a smartphone app to help track people who may be unaware they have contracted COVID-19, as well as those who have come into contact with them.

Following mounting concerns that SA will be taking a “big brother approach” to access sensitive information while tracking citizens’ mobile phones, government quelled concerns, saying it would appoint a judge to safeguard the rights of citizens whose information will be tracked and traced, as part of the COVID-19 regulations stipulated in the Government Gazette on 26 March.

“The COVID-19 tracing database shall include all information considered necessary for the contact-tracing process to be effective, including but not limited to – the first name and surname, identity or passport numbers, residential address and other address where such person could be located, and cellular phone numbers of all persons who have been tested for COVID-19; the COVID-19 test results of all such persons; and the details of the known or suspected contacts of any person who tested,” states the regulations.