(CBS NEWS) – Google and Apple announced a rare joint effort Friday to help fight the coronavirus pandemic. The tech giants will soon launch a contact tracing tool that will alert people when they have come near an infected person. The technology offers the possibility of helping to contain future flare-ups of the virus — but also raises serious privacy concerns.
The new technology for both iPhones and Android phones will allow users to opt-in to a system that tracks nearby phones, trading information using Bluetooth, according to a blog post from Google. The tool will alert users if they have been in close proximity to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, which has now infected more than 1.6 million people worldwide and killed over 100,000.
The companies said they are first launching developer tools in mid-May for already-available contact tracing apps from public health officials. Users with those apps can self-report their diagnoses and see those of people around them.
But in the coming months, Apple and Google say they plan to build the technology directly into the underlying operating systems of their phones, eliminating the need to download an app to use it. Google CEO Sundar Pichai tweeted that he and Apple CEO Tim Cook are “committed to working together on these efforts.”
Apple and Google emphasized that the tool will not track the location or identity of users, only sharing data between phones and not with the companies’ servers. It also keeps the identities of the users private to others and to the two companies. Cook tweeted that the technology “respects transparency and consent.”
“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,” the companies said. “Through close cooperation and collaboration with developers, governments and public health providers, we hope to harness the power of technology to help countries around the world slow the spread of COVID-19 and accelerate the return of everyday life.”
Contact tracing, the process of identifying those who have come into contact with an infected person and telling them to self-quarantine, has been a relatively slow process worldwide. The new technology could offer a way to keep billions of people who already own these devices informed.
However, the tool also raises privacy concerns — and it wouldn’t be effective until widespread testing is readily available.
“No contact tracing app can be fully effective until there is widespread, free, and quick testing and equitable access to healthcare. These systems also can’t be effective if people don’t trust them,” said Jennifer Granick, ACLU surveillance and cybersecurity counsel, adding that she believes Apple and Google have done a good job handling the major privacy concerns.
“People will only trust these systems if they protect privacy, remain voluntary, and store data on an individual’s device, not a centralized repository,” she said. “At the same time, we must be realistic that such contact tracing methods are likely to exclude many vulnerable members of society who lack access to technology and are already being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.”
Asked about it during his daily coronavirus press briefing on Friday, President Trump called the technology “very interesting,” but declined to say whether the government would consider using it.
“Well, there’s individual freedoms problems and a lot of other things. Is it something that we’re going to look at it? Certainly,” he said. “It’s very interesting. But a lot of people worry about it in terms of a person’s freedom. We’re going to take a look at it, a very strong look at it.”
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