Apple and Google's betas for COVID-19 contact tracing are live

Developers can now start incorporating contact tracing into their apps.

Choice of an employee leader from the crowd. Man holds an employee in his hand.

In one of the most surprising but potentially live-saving collabs of modern times, Apple and Google have paired up to tag-team the coronavirus by committing to building contact-tracing tools for their respective mobile operating systems. Veteran Apple news breaker Mark Gurman tweeted on Wednesday that the first beta for developers — which we knew was coming — is now available.

“Today, Apple, Google release the first Covid-19 Contact Tracing/Exposure Notification development tools to app makers. That includes Xcode 11.5, iOS 13.5 beta 3 (changed from 13.4.5), and a beta update from Google Play,” Gurman says.

Contact what now? — Contact tracing uses the Bluetooth antenna built into smartphones to ping those of other smartphones in its vicinity. But combining that data with people willing to self-report if they’ve contracted the coronavirus, it’s possible to figure out when people have come into contact with one another, and thus, if they’ve likely been exposed to an infected person, all without compromising anyone's identity.

The hope is that contact tracing could help people find out when they should be self-quarantining, while also helping governments and healthcare organizations preemptively identify where they ought to be allocating resources, or areas that might be on track to become infection hotspots.

Privacy is paramount — Considering Big Tech’s less than exemplary track record with respecting privacy, it’s understandable that many people are concerned that contact tracing may be giving too much power to Apple and Google. Both companies have repeatedly offered reassurances that it will remain opt-in, and have published an FAQ to address consumers’ concerns.

The U.K. government, meanwhile, has chosen to build its own contact-tracing solution that doesn’t rely on Apple and Google, but which may well have privacy flaws of its own. You can bet plenty of privacy advocates will be putting Apple and Google’s solutions through their paces. We’ll retain a healthy dose of skepticism, but we’re also ready to try almost anything that can slow the spread of the coronavirus more effectively than the U.S. government’s policies have.