It seems a most unlikely partnership, then, that the two tech giants have joined forces to develop a standard to aid public health organizations in the fight against Covid-19. Specifically, the companies announced on Friday that they would both build software into their devices that can be used to help contact tracing, a necessary tool for slowing the spread of a pandemic.
In a statement, the companies announced:
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.
One thing this tells us is that while the two companies are fierce rivals in almost every aspect of their businesses, these are extraordinary times. Apple and Google account for the operating systems that power some 99 percent of all mobile devices, putting them in a unique position to help.
Public health officials have said that contact tracing is an important tool, especially in helping all of us get back to normal--or whatever the new version of normal looks like. Contact tracing is simply taking the people who have tested positive and then identifying anyone they may have come in contact with. Those individuals can then be notified and tested, or isolated until it's no longer likely that they have been infected.
The problem is that if you test positive, it can be difficult to identify all of the people you may have come into contact with. If, for example, you went to the grocery store over the weekend, it's entirely possible that you could have come in close enough contact to spread the coronavirus before you even knew you were contagious.
The technology being built by Google and Apple would allow your mobile devices to communicate in a way that the people you came into contact with could later be notified. The first step is the development of an API by both companies that will allow the development of iOS and Android apps that can be used for individuals to opt-in.
Then, both companies plan to introduce technology that works with Bluetooth, which would allow contact tracing on a much larger scale down the road.
Of course, people get a little nervous anytime technology companies start talking about things like this. That's fair considering that there is no shortage of tech companies that have built entire business models on monetizing our personal information.
The companies acknowledge those concerns and addressed them directly in their joint statement:
Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders. We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyze.
While Google doesn't exactly have a great track record when it comes to user privacy, Apple has long made it a core of its brand identity. The companies have even released a series of white papers detailing how they intend to protect privacy while still providing the necessary information to public health officials.
If nothing else, the joint effort is a reminder of how important of a role technology plays in our lives, and how important it will be in getting life back to normal. There are very smart people at both Apple and Google, and right now we're counting on them to do what they can to help.