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Apple, Google plan to release contact-tracing tool this week

A woman uses the Australian government's contact tracking app, COVIDSafe

The Australian government's contact tracing app, COVIDSafe. Apple and Google worked together on their own tech-based solution. Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

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The term “contact tracing” is being used a lot at the moment. It’s a way to notify us if we’ve been in contact with a person infected with COVID-19. Health authorities say it’s crucial as part of plans to reopen businesses and the economy. 

Technology can help with this. Apple and Google are set to release a smartphone tool this week. Traditional contact tracing involves a human tracker questioning someone who tests positive about who they’ve been near, and then trying to reach those people to warn them to isolate. 

Tina White, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at Stanford University, is with the group Covid Watch, which helped develop the underlying technology to allow smartphones to track other phones around them privately — and do contact tracing.

“What this sort of app will do is it will give you an anonymous notification instead that you have been exposed, [and] here are the next steps,” White said.

Apple and Google, traditionally competitors when it comes to their iPhones and Android phones, worked together on the system, which uses Bluetooth signals.

Users will have to download an app from their local public health authority to opt in.

Pam Dixon, founder and executive director of the World Privacy Forum, wants assurances that any data will be deleted once this pandemic is over. 

“We need to hear that this is a temporary system just to deal with the crisis and then it goes away,” Dixon said.

She’s also watching to see if the use of these types of trackers becomes mandatory to enter restaurants or board planes, for example, which she says would raise extra concerns.

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