Google and Apple's COVID-19 contact tracing API will be ready for developers next week

Tim Cook spoke about the project's fast progress during a chat with EU Commissioner Thierry Breton on Wednesday.

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The first version of Apple and Google’s joint contact-tracing API will be available for developers on April 28, according to French publication Les Echos. This is quite a bit earlier than the mid-May release we were initially told to expect.

Apple CEO Tim Cook revealed the revised timeline on a call with EU Commissioner Thierry Breton on Wednesday evening. Breton tweeted about the short meeting, in which he was assured the contact tracing apps are anonymous and transparent, amongst other buzzwords.

The project will be limited to downloadable apps at first, though Google and Apple hope the technology will later be included as part of each company’s mobile operating systems. The unprecedented collaboration hopes to leverage technology to stop the COVID-19 pandemic as quickly as possible.

Just download and develop — In creating this evolution of contact tracing technology, Google and Apple wanted to focus on ease of use and privacy. Contact tracing uses a smartphone’s existing short-range Bluetooth capabilities to monitor when your phone has come in close contact with another phone.

Not ready for the public just yet — The April 28 date we’re seeing now is when the project’s API will be available for developers to download. With this API on-hand, government agencies and other developers will be able to create their own versions of contact-tracing apps to work on iOS and Android devices. That means it will be a while until consumers are actually able to download these apps onto their phones.

Still some settling to be done — Though Google and Apple both consistently speak to user privacy and security as being central to the project’s design, there’s still some uncertainty about how government entities will be allowed to use the data collected by the apps they create.

Apple’s privacy standards will only allow the contact-tracing Bluetooth technology to run in the background if that data is not being fed to a centralized database. Some countries, such as France, hope to indeed create a centralized database, so their versions of contact-tracing apps will only be able to run when the app is actively open on a phone.

Others hope to leave open the option for the contact-tracing data to be less anonymous. A leaked memo from the National Health Service said the U.K. government would like to be able to identify individuals from their smartphone data.

The efficacy of contact tracing in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic remains to be seen. Experts are divided on whether or not a voluntary program with so many variables will do much to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Either way, it’s exciting that Apple and Google have moved so quickly on this new technology. Whether or not it proves to be a long-term solution — while also respecting user privacy — will take longer to understand.