Rare partnership between Apple and Google will bring COVID-19 contact tracing app to users

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- During the COVID-19 pandemic, smartphone users are seeing a rare partnership between tech rivals, Apple and Google.

The companies announced Friday, they're teaming up for a COVID-19 contact tracing app which would alert users about any potential exposure to the virus.

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The unusual alliance was announced through Tweets on Friday.

Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai both pitching a way to turn smartphones into COVID-19 tracking devices.

"Contact tracing can help slow the spread of COVID-19 and can be done without compromising user privacy," Cook tweeted.

Pichai followed, "To help public health officials slow the spread of #COVID19, Google & Apple are working on a contact tracing approach designed with strong controls and protections for user privacy."

ABC7 News turned to cyber security experts about this unusual partnership.

"Why Android and iOS? Why Google and Apple? The total number of people that are using the devices of both companies as a smart contract is 3-billion. That's almost half of the people in the world," Cyber Security expert and professor at San Jose State University, Ahmed Banafa said.

Banafa explained the Bluetooth-based approach isn't new, but it is a foundation that can help us navigate the new pandemic.

"This Apple-Google foundation is step one. Having the health authorities on board will be a very important step two," Stephen Shankland, Senior Editor at CNET News told ABC7.

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Contact tracing would allow people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to volunteer that information and anonymously alert others who they've recently come into contact with.

"It doesn't tell you who it was. It doesn't tell you what their phone number was. It doesn't even tell you where they were," Shankland explained. "It just tells you, 'Yes, you were in proximity with this person for a period of time.'"

Shankland explained contact tracing has always been an important part of epidemiology. He says smart phones change that, now potentially automating what has long been a manual process.

What an eventual app could potentially enable is a mechanism for users to get warnings about potential exposure.

"It's not yet clear how important it will actually be," Shankland said about Apple and Google's effort. "A lot of that depends on the health authorities that are going to be responsible for bringing this technology to the general public."

"So far, from the blueprint, what we have seen today, and the intention and the goal for the app, it's excellent," Banafa told ABC7 News. "This app will give us a way to know more about what's going on in our area. So, instead of driving in the dark, now we have an idea about if you encountered somebody in the past 2-3 days, or the past 14 days."

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Illustrations provided by Google give users a condensed view of how the opt-in tool would eventually work.

Let's say strangers, Alice and Bob cross paths, even briefly. The Bluetooth on their devices exchange anonymous signals, or I.D.'s.

Days later, Bob tests positive for COVID-19. With his permission, his phone uploads the last 14 days of I.D.'s to the cloud.

Notices get sent to anyone whose device recently exchanged I.D.'s with Bob's.

In this scenario, Alice has enabled the app and receives an alert, and information about what to do next.

"I point out that there's a similar project, spearheaded by MIT, and it has some of the biggest names in encryption working on this technology," Shankland added. "So, it's got some serious support from very high levels in the security world."

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Implementation details aren't available yet, but tech experts anticipate there will be privacy concerns.

"There is a lot that remains to be proven about this technology. I'm sure there are going to be some very smart security researchers digging into the white papers that have been published on this to see if they can find holes in it," Shankland added. "Privacy leakage issues, things like that."

He continued, "There's going to be an element of trust here. You're going to have to trust that the system works, that it's been vetted carefully, and that it will be beneficial overall for you and for society at large."

Banafa added, "This kind of challenge just brings the best of Silicon Valley in many levels- on the human level, the intellectual level, and on us as humans with each other because we care."

Apple and Google maintain privacy is a top priority, and assure there is much more work to be done before the apps are available in May.

To read the full release from the Apple newsroom, click here.

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