Apple Inc. and Google said that they are putting stronger privacy protections in their upcoming contact-tracing tool for Covid-19 and that an early version will launch for developers next week.
The technology companies said the system’s tracking keys will be generated in more random ways, and that Bluetooth data will now be encrypted, making it more difficult for specific users to be identified by hackers. Apps using the tool will also now limit the recording of the time people are exposed to an infected person to a maximum of 30 minutes.
The companies said they made these changes after discussions with governments and public health app developers. The technology has been criticized for potentially sharing too much private health data, while France has asked Apple to relax some privacy protections.
The system, first announced two weeks ago, adds technology to the iOS and Android operating systems that will alert users if they have come into contact with a person with Covid-19. The companies are also calling the technology Exposure Notification, a term they say more accurately describes the functionality.
The first phase — tools for public health apps to add contact tracing — will launch publicly in mid-May after an early “beta” version of the software is released to developers next week. In the coming months, the technology will be embedded more deeply into the Apple and Google operating systems to be less reliant on apps.
The companies also explained that if a person inputs that they have tested positive for Covid-19 into the system, they will be added to a positive diagnosis list so the system can notify the users that they have come into contact with. They reiterated that the system doesn’t reveal a user’s identity or location to Apple or Google.
In a Frequently Asked Questions page, the companies said the “public health authority app will be able to access a list of beacons provided by users confirmed as positive for COVID-19 who have opted in to sharing them.”
It is also adding new features to the tool for public health developers to build contact tracing apps. The companies said they will give apps data on the strength of Bluetooth signals so the distance between devices can be more accurately estimated. Developers will also be able to specify distance and time to determine what constitutes Covid-19 exposure for their apps. The tool will also determine how many days since a person has been exposed.
Apple said that the software update to enable the system will work on devices released in the last four years. Google said the tool will work on with Android 6.0 or higher, which covers about 2 billion gadgets.