Apple and Google-backed COVID-19 contact tracing apps are coming: Q&A

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Apple and Google are working together to support coronavirus contact tracing apps. What are the apps and what will they mean to you?

On April 10, Apple and Google jointly announced a partnership using proximity-tracking Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus through contact tracing.

Contact tracing, also called Exposure Notification, is a way to identify those who have come into contact with an infected person.

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As of this week, Apple and Google are delivering the code to the developers who will build the apps.

The companies said that there will be two phases. Phase 1 will be the rollout of code to developers. Phase 2, coming later, will implement the technology "at the operating system level to help ensure broad adoption," Google said.

Here are some questions and answers on how the apps will work and where you can download them.

Q: How will it work?

A: The apps will use Bluetooth to ping nearby devices to determine if the user has come into contact with an infected person.

If a user decides to report a positive diagnosis of COVID-19 to their app, they will be added to the positive diagnosis list – managed by a public health authority – so that other users who came into range of the infected person’s Bluetooth “beacons” can be alerted.

Conversely, if a user is notified by their app that they have come into contact with an infected person, the system will share the day the contact occurred and how long it lasted, among other data.

Q: How does the system know when you’ve been exposed?

A: The public health authority will handle this. To support this, the app will estimate the time a user has been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 and the approximate distance between them, according to Google. Public health authorities will determine a minimum threshold for time spent together. For instance, a user needs to be within Bluetooth range for at least 5 minutes to register a match.

Q: Where will you get the apps?

A: The apps will be available for users to download via Apple and Google's app stores.

Q: Who will make the apps?

A: Public health authorities will update existing apps or create apps. Google and Apple will make available the public health authority apps for each region in the Play Store and App Store.

Q: How is privacy preserved?

A: If enabled, a user’s device will regularly send out a beacon via Bluetooth that includes a privacy-preserving identifier — “a string of random numbers that aren’t tied to a user's identity and change every 10-20 minutes for additional protection,” according to Google.

Keep in mind that a user can turn off the app at any time by uninstalling the app and then turning off exposure notification in Settings.

Moreover, access to the technology will be granted only to public health authorities. Their apps must meet specific criteria around privacy, security, and data control.

Q: Are there any risks to using the apps?

A: Yes, there is a possibility that hackers will gain access to personal information and a person's daily routine. We won't know for sure until after the apps are in use if there is any real risk. 

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As of Thursday morning, more than 3.2 million coronavirus cases have been diagnosed worldwide, more than 1 million of which are in the U.S., the most impacted country on the planet.

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