In the not-too-distant future, we could all be walking around with a smartphone app designed to track and trace the spread of Covid-19. That has set some privacy alarm bells ringing, and now Apple and Google have explained more about how their apps will work to try and put minds at rest.
New documents published online explain various aspects of the Bluetooth, cryptography and data storage protocols that are going to be used, so that everyone knows what they're letting themselves in for once they activate these apps. There's also a FAQ about the privacy implications.
If you're just getting up to speed with this, Apple and Google are working together on phone software that will alert other people that you've recently been physically close to if you contract Covid-19. The whole process will operate anonymously, and so far it's very much a work-in-progress, with no official launch yet announced.
Today we have a few more details: randomly generated keys and Bluetooth encryption will be used to make identifying individuals very, very difficult. If your phone pings to say you've been near someone who may have Covid-19, you won't know who it is – just that you've been in their general vicinity.
Readings (of where you are and where other people are) will be taken every five minutes and capped at 30 minutes per pairing, while various other tweaks should improve the draw on battery life and the accuracy of these apps.
It will be completely up to you, the user, whether these tracing technologies are turned on at all, and whether or not the data is shared with apps, and the software will rely on Bluetooth readings to work out which devices you're near – no location data (e.g. where you are in the world) will be logged. You can see the full FAQ here.
Technically, these aren't "apps" as such – they're APIs or Application Programming Interfaces that other app makers (like health services and governments) can use to tap into the data being collected by iOS and Android. Apple and Google say the number of apps that will be able to access this data will be tightly controlled.
The tech giants and the governments of the world know that public trust and support is essential for these apps to work as intended, and so you can expect to hear plenty more on privacy protections before the actual tech is out in the wild.