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Apple and Google phones to track down people with COVID-19

Apple and Google have announced they are working together to create contact tracing technology aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus.

In a rare collaboration, the two companies – whose operating systems power 99% of the world’s smartphones – plan to add new software to devices to make it easier to track down people who may have been infected with COVID-19.

To be effective, the system would require millions of people to opt into the system and trust the technology giants’ safeguards.

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 04: In this photo illustration, the logo of the Gmail app homepage is seen on the screen of an iPhone in front of a computer screen showing a Google logo on July 04, 2018 in Paris, France. According to the Wall Street Journal dozens of Google partner companies have access to emails from 1.5 billion Gmail users. Gmail is a free email service offered by Google. (Photo Illustration by Chesnot/Getty Images)
Image: Google and Apple’s operating systems power 99% of the world’s smartphones

Under the plan, smartphones with the contact tracing technology will emit unique Bluetooth signals. Phones within about 6ft can then record anonymous information about their encounters.

People who test positive for coronavirus can opt to send an encrypted list of phones they came near to Apple and Google, which will trigger alerts to potentially exposed users to seek more information.

Public health authorities would need to confirm that a person has tested positive for COVID-19 before they can send on the data.

The logs will be scrambled to keep infected individuals’ data anonymous – even to Apple, Google and contact tracing app
makers, the two companies said.

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They added that their contact tracing system will not track GPS location.

Irish rock band U2 singer Bono's hands hold is "Red" iphone during a session pannel at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting, on January 23, 2019 in Davos, eastern Switzerland. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)
Image: Apple will distribute the technology as an update to its iPhone operating system

Initially, Apple and Google plan to release software tools in mid-May to contact tracing apps which they and public health authorities approve.

But over the coming months, they say will release software updates to smartphones so that users do not need a separate app to log nearby devices.

Apple will distribute the technology as an update to its iPhone operating system.

Google said the tools and updates would not be available where its services are blocked, such as in China or on unofficial Android devices.

Asked about the development, US President Donald Trump said: “It’s very interesting, but a lot of people worry about it in terms of a person’s freedom. We’re going to take a look at that, a very strong look at that.”

Sky News revealed last month that the UK government is preparing to release an app which alerts people if they come too close to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Health experts have credited extensive testing and contact tracing with slowing the spread of the virus in nations such as South Korea.

Location data from Google revealed visits to parks in the UK increased last weekend compared with two weeks ago.

The company has started sharing activity data linked to people’s movements to show how the public is responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

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In its second report for the UK, covering the period between 23 February and 5 April, the data shows that trips to the park dropped 29% in comparison with the period before the lockdown was introduced.

Google’s first report, which looked at activity between 16 February and 29 March, found park usage was down 52%.

The tech giant said it is using aggregated, anonymised data from products such as Google Maps for the analysis.

The scheme protects people’s privacy and will not include any personally identifiable information at any point, Google added.

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