Apple and Google answer key questions about contact tracing in a new FAQ

The method for tracking the spread of COVID-19 has raised concerns about user data and privacy.

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Apple and Google have released a joint FAQ that answers questions regarding their historic plan to collaborate on contact tracing for tracking the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus. APIs for the technology are set to go live in iOS and Android next week, and will enable public health authorities to create apps that track how often people come into close contact with people who've tested positive for COVID-19.

Contact tracing is only one technology for authorities to monitor the spread, and its efficacy is yet to be seen, particularly as Apple and Google have promised participation in the program will be voluntary. That means the data might omit a lot of positive cases of coronavirus. Also, testing for COVID-19 is very limited in the first place, at least in the U.S.

Privacy worries — The announcement of contact tracing raised immediate questions about how any data collected would be used, and how much control users would have over it. One might reasonably fear what could happen if the government of a repressive country had a centralized list of everyone infected by the coronavirus. Or, you know, the U.S. governors in some states.

Apple and Google say nobody will ever be required to report their status through the program, and even if they do they'll be identified only by a random string of numbers that can't be traced back to an actual person. Anyone who opts-in can turn off contact tracing at any time and stop broadcasting their status. In the coming months, contact tracing will be implemented at the OS-level, but nonetheless remain voluntary.

How it works — Contact tracing works by regularly sending out a random string of numbers via Bluetooth, with other phones in the program listening out for them. If you eventually test positive for COVID-19 and report it within the program, any user that has been in close proximity with you will be alerted that they came in contact with a person infected by the virus.

The FAQ says Google and Apple will work with authorities to determine what constitutes "contact" — do two people need to be around each other for 1 minute? Or 5 minutes? And how close they need to be is TBD — Bluetooth signal strength between two devices will be able to approximate distance.

Once contact-tracing is implemented at the OS-level, anyone who comes in contact with a positive case will be alerted and advised to download a relevant app for more information.

Limited access — Only public health authorities will have access to the technology, according to the FAQ, and only they will have access to the shared list of anonymous users who self-report having tested positive for COVID-19. The whole idea is to offer authorities an idea of how many spreaders they might have on their hands so they can respond with the appropriate measures. The point isn't to hunt down infected people and keep a constant eye on them. The FAQ also notes that data from the program will never be monetized.