By Jason Aten – Tech columnist
Last week, Apple and Google announced an interesting partnership. Both companies will build technology into their mobile operating systems that will allow for large-scale contact tracing. It’s a pretty big deal for two reasons: The first is that the two companies are fierce rivals, but are working together to solve a problem that affects all of us. Second, it might actually work, since the two companies power almost all mobile devices worldwide.
People understandably start to get nervous when they hear their mobile phones could be used for any kind of tracing, especially if they’re not sure what that means. The basic concept is you would be able to download an app that would ping off other mobile phones you come into proximity with.
If you were to later test positive for Covid-19, you could indicate as much on the app, which would then notify the owners of the other devices you came in contact with they were potentially exposed.
Most experts agree contact-tracing is one of the most important factors to “reopening” society. That’s because it will allow new cases to be isolated while pinpointing others who might have been exposed early enough that the spread can be limited.
But contact tracing during the height of a pandemic is almost impossible because it’s such a manual process. What Apple and Google are building is a way to do it at scale in an automated manner.
And no, the companies aren’t uploading your information to some government server to identify who has the virus. That’s the other reason it’s so important that Apple and Google are both involved.
Apple has a reputation for protecting user privacy in a way that not many other companies can claim. It doesn’t monetize your personal information by showing you ads based on your activities, unlike Google or Facebook, for example.
Here’s the thing: The Bluetooth technology that Apple and Google are working on isn’t that different from what Apple already is using for its Find My service. That service uses Bluetooth to send out signals, even when your device has no service or isn’t connected to the internet.
Those signals are relayed by other close-by devices, which then forward them to Apple’s servers. Since the entire system is end-to-end encrypted, not only can’t bad guys get access to your location or personal information, not even Apple could identify your device location.
The technology behind contact tracing works similarly. While devices communicate with each other in order to exchange a “key,” that information can only be used to later notify individuals who may have been exposed, and who should be tested. No personal information is exchanged, so no, the government isn’t tracking your information (at least not with this technology).
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