Two of the tech industry's biggest competitors are teaming up on a project they say will help alert people who may have had contact with someone diagnosed with the novel coronavirus.
Apple and Google in May will release the first step of a two-part project focused on contact tracing, a process used in public health to identify people who were in close contact or proximity to someone infected with a virus, such as COVID-19.
Public health leaders have said contact tracing will play a significant role in curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus, letting those exposed know to isolate themselves or seek other health guidance.
"Since COVID-19 can be transmitted through close proximity to affected individuals, public health officials have identified contact tracing as a valuable tool to help contain its spread," Apple and Google said in a joint statement Friday.
It's a time- and labor-intensive process that involves monitoring and individually reaching out to people who may have had contact with someone who tests positive for a disease. But Apple and Google said they think they can help with that effort, leveraging application programming interfaces, Bluetooth technology and smartphones.
Next month, Apple and Google will launch the first step of the project, which involves releasing APIs—protocols that connect various types of software, such as apps, to one another—that allow iOS and Android mobile devices to share data with apps from public health authorities. Users would have to download those apps from Apple's App Store or the Google Play Store.
The plan is for participating devices to exchange signals with one another when in close proximity. Then, if a user is diagnosed with COVID-19 and inputs that information to an authorized public health app, the system will push an alert about risk of exposure to the devices of others who had been in close range to the user in the past several days.
The project is a significant undertaking, with the potential to tap almost all smartphone owners in the U.S. Fifty-two percent of smartphone users in the U.S. run on Google's Android operating system, according to market research firm Statista. Apple's iOS accounts for 47%.
Apple and Google have said user privacy and security is "central to the design" of the project, likely hoping to assuage growing privacy concerns over major technology companies getting involved with health efforts. Users have to opt in to participating, and the companies said the project will not collect or share identifiable information like names and locations.
The second step of the project will involve using Bluetooth to exchange data between nearby mobile devices, so that users won't have to download a specific app. Apple and Google said that phase of the project will be completed in the next few months.