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Contact-tracing: The Technology That Notifies if You've Came Close to a Covid-19 Patient

Contact-tracing is a tech to stop the spread of Covid-19 by Apple and Google. The app notifies you when you come into contact with a person with coronavirus.
Zahrah A
14 April 2020

Usual competitors, Google and Apple have teamed up to add technology to their smartphone platforms that will alert users if they have potentially come into contact with a person that has Covid-19. This service is voluntary and has the potential to track about a third of the world's population. Jeeeez.

This technology is known as contact-tracing. This is designed to stop the spread of Covid-19. How? If you were to come into contact with a person that has the novel coronavirus, you'll be alerted to quarantine or isolate afterwards.

On Friday, the companies said that they're building this tech into their iOS and Android operating systems - in two steps. In mid-May, the companies will add the abilities for iPhones and Android phones to be able to wirelessly exchange anonymous data via apps that are run by the public health authorities. Apple and Google will also release frameworks in order for public health apps to manage their functionality.

This means that if a user were to test positive for Covid-19, the data would be added to the public health app. Users that came into close contact with this person over the last several days will be notified of this fact.

The second step takes longer than the first. In the coming months, both of the companies will add the contact-tracing directly to their OSs. This is so that the tracing software works without the user having to download an app. This second step also means that many more people can be included. Apple's and Google's users put together equate to bout 3 billion - over a third of the population.


The controversy that comes with this plan

This tech involves sharing everyone's health information from billions of people via mobile devices that are constantly relaying their location.

Apple and Google have insisted that their system preserve users' privacy. In this case, consent is required and location data isn't collected. The technology won't notify users of the specific person you came into contact with or where the contact took place. They also said that they can't see this data either and that the system can be shut down when needed.

Other than the privacy concerns, another challenge is the availability of widespread and free testing to complement the app. As well as this is the access to mobile phones and other wireless devices according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

How does the contact-tracing actually work?

Apple and Google have shared a theoretical example in order to explain how it works:

If two people were to stop and a chat for a few minutes, the Bluetooth in their smartphones exchange anonymous identifiers to register that the two have been in contact. The digital keys change around every 15 minutes to that people preserve their privacy.

If several days later, that same person was diagnosed with Covid-19, they enter the results onto a health-agency app that is on their phone. The system then asks for the user's consent. If this is granted, the person's smartphone sends a record of other devices it has been close to in the previous days. This information is temporarily stored in a remote server for around 2 weeks.

Whilst this happens, the other person's phone checks the server periodically to see if any identifier keys have been associated with a positive Covid-19 result. This phone then downloads the positive keys and matches it to the key that belongs to the original person they met days ago. Then a notification is sent to the other person's phone with information on how to quarantine and self-isolate.

Will you give your consent to the health app? Stay safe!

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