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How Covid-19 Contact Tracing Works

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How Covid-19 Contact Tracing Works

Our Smartphones are set to play a significant role in helping navigate our way out of the coronavirus pandemic, with countries and companies around the world preparing their own apps as part of a track-and-trace system to keep infection levels low.

Google and Apple don’t work together on much, but they’re working together on this: a set of underlying protocols inside Android and iOS that are able to speak to each other, even while your phone is in your pocket.

The first fruits of these efforts are now live on Android phones and iPhones—here’s how to find these settings on your phone, and what they actually do.

What Apple and Google have developed isn’t an app in itself—rather it’s an application programming interface (an API), plus some other fundamental technologies, that other apps can plug into. When you load up a website with a Google Maps widget on it, that is using a Google Maps API, and the Covid-19 tracking tools work in the same way.

In other words, Apple and Google have done the groundwork, making sure that health apps can talk to each other across Android and iOS and get access to the features they need. It’s now up to countries (and states) to develop the apps that plug into these foundations and provide the actual front-end interface for users. (If indeed they decide to—some agencies are working on completely bespoke systems of their own.)

A crucial part of this underlying framework is access to Bluetooth signals. Bluetooth is perfect for low-energy wireless transmission that can run in the background of your phone, without draining the battery excessively. (It’s used for wireless headphones, car stereos, and the like.)

How the Apps Will Work

At this stage, we don’t know how, exactly, many of the coronavirus tracking apps built on top of the Apple and Google technologies are going to work. Latvia has been one of the first countries out of the gate, but in the US, the decision on development is going to be made state by state. Utah, for example, has decided to ignore the framework Apple and Google have put together in its own tracking app.

Here’s how the apps built on the Google and Apple tech are likely to function: First, you’ll have the choice whether to download an app at all and whether to enable the coronavirus tracking at the mobile OS level, as explained above. If you contract Covid-19, you then have another choice whether to alert the people that you’ve been in close proximity to.

To avoid false positives, there’ll have to be some form of verification—a kind of certification from a health authority that a Covid-19 test has indeed come up positive, to prevent people from pretending or incorrectly entering that they have caught the coronavirus. This could involve a verification code, for example, though this is one of the details to be finalized.

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