What is Apple secretly working on

Corona tracing in Android and iOS: you need to know that

Google and Apple want to support the development of tracking and tracing apps to combat coronavirus. To this end, the two otherwise competing tech giants have started a joint initiative to integrate the corresponding functionality in Android and iOS.

Google and Apple have developed a Bluetooth-based platform for contact tracking: the Exposure Notification Framework. But what is the plan of the joint coronavirus initiative? We summarize the current state of knowledge.

Current update: German Corona app starts this week

  • 16.06.2020: The German corona warning app has been in operation since tonight officially launched. For the download it is recommended to use the official app stores:
  • 15.06.2020: According to information from DPA and Tagesschau, the corona warning app is to officially start on Tuesday, June 16.
  • 08.06.2020: The Corona warning app is to be published in the next week. Health Minister Jens Spahn announced this to the newspaper "Rheinische Post".
  • 01.06.2020: The source code of the official Corona warning app for Germany has been published on Github.
  • 29.05.2020: In Switzerland, the contact tracing technology from Apple and Google is now being used for the first time in an official app. For the time being, according to the BBC, the app will only be tested to a limited extent - including by the Swiss military and hospital employees.
  • 26.05.2020: Google has now also started to roll out the COVID-19 interface via Google Play Services. As soon as the update has been installed automatically, the menu item "Notifications of possible encounters with COVID-19 infected people" appears in the Google settings.
  • 20.05.2020: Apple has released iOS 13.5 and, as announced, is rolling out the interface for COVID-19 contact tracking.
  • 23.04.2020: According to a report by the French newspaper Les Echos, Apple CEO Tim Cool has announced the launch of the Corona Tracking API on iOS for April 28th. A first version of the technology should be available to developers by this date. Our article has been updated accordingly.

Step 1: New Bluetooth API

The initiative by Google and Apple provides for measures in two steps. In May 2020, interfaces for Android and iOS will initially be published, which should facilitate mutual Bluetooth tracking of smartphones with the two operating systems. Apple has named the API Exposure Notification FrameworkRolled out with iOS 13.5, Google is distributing the new interface via an update to Google Play Services.

Reading tip: Corona apps at a glance

Official apps from health authorities can access this API. In Germany, this will be the official Corona warning app that is being developed by SAP and Deutsche Telekom. The apps of the authorities can then be offered as usual for voluntary download in the Google Play Store and Apple App Store

Step 2: Tracking platform in the operating system

As a second step, Google and Apple are planning to integrate their own Bluetooth-based platform for contact measurements directly into Android and iOS. This should then also be accessible to other app developers and thus enable its own ecosystem.

For this platform, Google and Apple promise to attach great importance to the issues of data protection, transparency and voluntariness. For example, the program code should be disclosed and no location data should be recorded. At the same time, the load on the battery life should be kept as low as possible.

How does corona tracing work with Google and Apple?

Google and Apple have disclosed technical details about the planned contact measurement API in various PDF documents. Accordingly, when tracking is activated, every smartphone will send a Bluetooth ID. This changes every 15 minutes to protect privacy. Each smartphone in turn stores locally which Bluetooth IDs have been in its vicinity in the past 14 days.

If a user tests positive for COVID-19, he can now voluntarily enter this information in the app in order to warn all contact persons who he has encountered with activated Bluetooth tracking during the critical period. The information is passed on anonymously to a central server.

Each smartphone in turn compares its own ID list with the positively reported IDs of the server. In the event of a positive contact, information from the respective health authority appears with further instructions.

Tracker installation: Detour via Google Play Services

But how do the corona warning functions get onto smartphones? While Apple can roll out the interface to all compatible iPhones and iPads via an update for iOS, operating system updates have traditionally been a difficult topic for Android.

The solution here is therefore a little detour: Google is rolling out its Bluetooth tracking function via Google Play Services on all smartphones with the Google Play Store. Android 6.0 Marshmallow or higher is required.

With this approach, all Android devices that do not have Google Play Services installed are inevitably excluded. This includes, for example, all Huawei devices that are only equipped with Huawei Mobile Services due to the sanctions.

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Challenges in practice

Due to the Bluetooth technology, the solution from Google and Apple could have some practical difficulties. For example, Bluetooth tracking could lead to false alarms in densely populated residential areas if people who tested positive are within Bluetooth range, but there is actually a spatial separation.

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As with Pepp-PT, however, the main uncertainty lies in voluntariness. The corona warnings can only work if enough users use the corresponding tracing app. It remains to be seen here how cooperatively the population will behave on this point.

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