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How does Apple and Google’s new COVID-19 tracking app work?

A new way forward in efficient contact-tracing


What's going on?

To flatten the curve of the spread of COVID-19 and to relax social-distancing restrictions, a country must be able to test people widely and thoroughly for the coronavirus. In particular, the ability to see who may have come in contact with those who have been positively tested is vital as well. Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, as opposed to a manual process, countries such as Singapore have relied on technology to case-track more efficiently.


On April 10, 2020, however, Apple and Google took the world by surprise by announcing what could be the most significant collaboration in the history of both companies. Both the tech giants are working together on a project that uses the Bluetooth chips in their smartphones to track the spread of COVID-19 more effectively.


With this tech solution, the app which will be released in May 2020 will utilize Bluetooth Low Energy to enable each smartphone with the app to spot other phones nearby. As long as the system is running, each phone will periodically blast out an anonymous identifier code. The phones will then exchange their ID codes, each building up a log of codes received along with the time received.


If one of the users from that exchange is later diagnosed and positively tested, they can submit their ID code to the relevant public health app for their region. Then, each phone that recognizes the ID code of the diagnosed user receives an alert. For privacy and security measures, Apple and Google have also promised to maximize individual privacy by recording only the proximity of one phone to another rather than the exact location.


Once the app is released, end-users will need to download the app on their smartphones that operate on iOS or Android for the tracing to work. Apple has reported that in the next few months, every phone since the iPhone 6s will be compatible with a built-in tracing functionality. Additionally, Google will make the system accessible for every phone since Android 6, previously known as Marshmallow.