Health officials in various states have begun to see the doubling rates of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths starting to slow, which means the curve is flattening—COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations are still unfortunately growing but not as rapidly. In an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and track exposures, Apple and Google have joined forces to create a new smartphone system, which uses Bluetooth to track the spread of the novel coronavirus.

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How Does Contact-Tracing Work?

The idea of contact-tracing through your smartphone is to track each COVID-infected person and then identify who they have recently come into contact with so those people can then be alerted that they are at risk of getting the virus. In theory, everyone who has been in contact with the sick person can then self-quarantine. This method helps health officials to reduce transmission of the coronavirus by isolating anyone who has been exposed.

Before the introduction of smartphone-tracking technology, public health officials were contact-tracing the old fashioned way—by interviewing the infected person to find out who they could have spread the virus to. It’s easy to see how difficult this can become when, as of April 13, 2020, there have been over 576,000 coronavirus cases in the United States. We simply don’t have enough resources to track exposures using this method. Not to mention, there are flaws to this type of data-gathering—firstly, the sick person may not accurately remember everyone they’ve come into contact with, and secondly, the sick person won’t be able to give health officials the name of strangers they were near while out in public. That’s where Apple and Google’s cell phone system comes into play.

What About Privacy?

Thanks to Apple and Google, it looks like privacy won’t be an issue with using your smartphone to track the spread of COVID-19. The two companies are doing everything they can to protect user data and anonymize the process.

Smartphone Technology Traces Coronavirus Exposures

Using Bluetooth technology, these two tech giants will be able to track when phones are near each other—that way, if someone tests positive for COVID-19, they can report this information, and then those they’ve come into contact with will automatically be notified, all without compromising anyone’s personal information. Then the people who may have been exposed can self-quarantine for 14 days, thus reducing the spread of the coronavirus and ultimately flattening the curve. While this smartphone tracking technology won’t necessarily replace traditional public health interviews, it will serve as a supplemental method.

Cell Phone COVID-19 Tracking App Available Mid-May

Google and Apple plan to introduce the first phase of the smartphone tracking systems in mid-May, in which users must download the app in order to track COVID-19 exposures. According to experts, this could limit early adoption, as it can be difficult to get people to download new apps.

In the second phase of Apple and Google’s contact-tracing plan, the functionality will be built into the operating system of the phones, so you don’t have to download a separate app. As long as the users update their operating system to the newest one available and opt in to using the technology (probably through your phone settings), their cell phone will begin sending out Bluetooth signals to nearby smartphones and recording signals from them as well. Apparently, if you’ve been exposed, then your phone will alert you and tell you to download a public health app for more information. So ultimately, individuals will still have to download an app if they’ve been exposed to the virus, although it’s likely more people will be willing to do that when they know they could be sick. Apple and Google will be working on this integrated technology in the upcoming months after the initial release of the app.

Arguably one of the most beneficial parts of downloading the public health app is that it works retroactively—once you download it, it will share who you’ve been in contact with or “proximity events” from the past 14 days.

How to Enable COVID-19 Tracking

  • Download the app (available mid-May)
  • Agree to share your data within the app
  • Turn on Bluetooth
  • Keep your phone on you when you leave the house

How are Proximity Events Determined?

Bluetooth signals have a range of about 30 feet, which is much further than the social distancing guidelines of six feet. As of now, the technology is limited to reporting whether or not two phones came in close proximity to one another (meaning within about 30 feet)—it can’t specify that two people were within six feet of one another. Because of this limitation, false positives could result in which someone is notified they’ve been exposed to the virus when they were actually relatively far from the person and only for a short time.

That said, since the risk of contracting the coronavirus increases with the amount of time spent with a COVID-positive person, the public health app will reportedly be able to record time spent in proximity to an infected person. The app will then use this duration of proximity when determining what qualifies as a proximity event. As of now, that exact duration hasn’t been set but early reports suggest it could be around five minutes—setting a limit of at least five minutes could dramatically drop the rate of false positives.

Will Tracking Work on All Phones?

Of course, your phone must have Bluetooth capabilities in order to use the contact-tracing app, but the good news is, Android and iOS have included Bluetooth since 2012 and 2011, respectively. For iPhone users, this means you have to have the iPhone 4S or newer and for Android folks, you have to have a phone more recent than the Samsung Galaxy S3, LG Nexus 4, Samsung Galaxy Note 2, etc. Only users with extremely old phones won’t be able to use this tracking technology.

Will Privacy be an Issue?

No, privacy will likely not be an issue with Apple and Google’s contact-tracing via smartphones. This is because Bluetooth technology, unlike a GPS, doesn’t track a phone user’s physical location—it simply picks up nearby phone signals and stores those connections. For example, if you opt to use this technology, your phone may report that you’ve been near four other phones this week, but it won’t say where or who.

Apple and Google have also stated that the system has several controls in place to prevent users from being identified, even after they’ve agreed to share their data to use the app. Via Bluetooth, the public health app sends out information in the form of an anonymous key as opposed to a set identity, and those keys change every 15 minutes in order to protect user privacy. In short, this means it would be virtually impossible for anyone to identify you or your personal information. That said, with any new technology there could be gaps or bugs, so it will be interesting to see in the upcoming months how these apps function and if they help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.