Google and Apple come together to build tracking APIs for COVID-19

In response to the on-going outbreak, Google and Apple have announced a partnership to assist Governments around the world in building applications to combat the coronavirus.

While Government departments are showing suitable appetite to take a digital approach to tackling the pandemic, Silicon Valley showing an interest is a very encouraging sign. There are plenty of smart people working for the Government but having the brains that design and maintain Android and iOS will certainly add some weight to the proposition.

“Across the world, governments and health authorities are working together to find solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic, to protect people and get society back up and running,” the duo said in a joint statement.

“Software developers are contributing by crafting technical tools to help combat the virus and save lives. In this spirit of collaboration, Google and Apple are announcing a joint effort to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with user privacy and security central to the design.”

The first step will take place in May with both companies releasing APIs to enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. These apps will be available to download from both the App Store and Play Store, though the APIs will only be offered to health authorities.

Secondly, the pair will work to develop a Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform over the coming months, building functionality into the underlying operating systems. This is deemed more robust than the APIs, allowing more apps to contribute to the data. Users will be able to opt-in/out of contributing, while the pair will openly publish the data for others in the private and academic communities to analyse.

This partnership will be a welcome boost to the regulatory community which is attempting to create a more consolidated and co-ordinated approach.

Over the last few weeks, the European Data Protection Supervisor has not only put forward documentation to state data collection and analysis to combat COVID-19 is compliant under EU GDPR, assuming it is also deleted in the future, but has pushed for a centralised approach.

“Given these divergences, the European Data Protection Supervisor calls for a pan-European model ‘COVID-19 mobile application’, coordinated at EU level,” said European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) Wojciech Wiewiorowski. “Ideally, coordination with the World Health Organisation should also take place, to ensure data protection by design globally from the start.”

A consolidated approach has several advantages, though there seems to be two major ones; less opportunity for something to go wrong and more opportunity for something to go right.

Firstly, a single approach allows regulatory authorities to ensure compliance under current rules, and obligations to delete data are honoured, while access to sensitive information can be monitored more effectively. The more fragmented the approach, the more divergence in methodology, the wider the supply chain and the greater the risk of something falling through the cracks.

Secondly, a co-ordinated approach offers greater breadth and depth of data, as well as more eyeballs on the same datasets to learn and develop strategies. If two heads are better than one, thousands of scientists evaluating exactly the same conundrum is much more likely to see success if managed correctly.

While there might be bickering and posturing to take leadership of such projects if politicians are left to their own devices, the presence of Google and Apple give the community a focal point to unite behind. These are two of the most innovative and influential companies in the digital community, having this sort of leadership (assuming their terrible track records for privacy can be managed) will only benefit the battle against COVID-19.

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