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Apple and Google Begin Joint Coronavirus Tracing tech

Eseandre Mordi



Beyond developing apps and creating systems that make life easier for everyone, the security and privacy of users have always been a grave concern over the years. However, the Exposure notification technology (also known as contact tracing system) by Apple and Google has stepped in to mitigate this in so many ways. According to them, the joint initiative is committed to providing better privacy protection for individual users. And in their recent updates, they claim that the changes they have made to the API will enable health care providers to develop better software.

Details of the recent update

Indeed, Apple and Google have put far-reaching measures in place to ensure that the contact tracing system is pivotal to addressing the current pandemic in many ways than one. From improving privacy measures to making individual tracing almost impossible to syncing the API to help individual developers and the healthcare providers on their specific projects, the recent update covers a lot. Here are the specific details to the update:

  • Adjustments in the cryptography techniques for generating keys that can be used by hackers to trace potential contacts.
  • A third-party can no longer access an individual’s contact tracing information as Apple and Google have ensured that this information is not traceable to the person’s identity.
  • Moving forward, they will be encrypting any metadata that is linked with Bluetooth signals including the signal strength – this will make potential identification much more difficult than ever.
  • Since the companies are working on a fixed-length service, the tracing system now allows regional authorities to disable the features if need be.
  • All apps that use this API are now provided a total of 30 minutes of exposure time in a 5-minute interval. That way, they are also protected by the metadata encryption.
  • Switch from the HMAC encryption algorithm to AES to improve energy efficiency and also reduce the performance impact the API has on smartphones.

How does this impact on coronavirus tracing?

Since physical distancing among others has been the mainstay in preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus, Apple and Google are set to provide signal strength information using the Bluetooth radio power output data to individual developers. This will provide a sustainable means of estimating the distance between any two devices. It also allows these developers to customize their choice parameters and enhance their services.

In the same vein, health care providers than also use these data to accurately determine the level of contacts that are of public health concern during this pandemic or for other epidemiology purposes. This may, however, vary from one region to another depending on the local health guidelines of those regions. Another interesting twist is that developers than also ascertain the time lag between contacts. 

Coronavirus tracing: centralized versus decentralized approach

What Apple and Google are offering with this update on their API is a more decentralized approach to contact tracing in the face of the pandemic. Here, different regions and individual developers can leverage on the COVID-19 inclusion on the recent API update as opposed to the centralized tracing protocol where data from close regions are uploaded to a central server. 

From what the News says, more major economies are reportedly giving public backing to a more centralized protocol. France, Germany, and the UK, for instance, have been neck-deep already in the process with plans to sync data with the local healthcare providers and also provide supports for digital notification on COVID-19 lab results.

The current situation is that of a thug of war between the tech lords and key economies and with this recent update, it doesn’t look like the former is willing to bend the knee. The French government and the Germans have also tried a more direct pressure to test if Google-Apple API will allow a more centralized protocol to no avail. 

If these companies keep their eyes on the goal to make the beta seed version of the OS update available to all iOS hardware running on iOS 13 and to cover an estimated 2 billion devices that use android globally, then a switch is less likely soon. 

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