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The Washington Post reports that Apple and Google are working together in what is called "an ambitious effort … to help combat the novel coronavirus, introducing new tools that could soon allow owners of smartphones to know if they have crossed paths with someone infected with the disease."  

These tools would work on both iPhones and Android devices, and if it works "could inject valuable new technological support into contact tracing, a strategy public health officials say is essential to allowing people to return to work and normal life while containing the spread of the pandemic."

According to the story, "Apple and Google are hoping to harness Bluetooth, a technology typically used to connect device owners’ wireless speakers and keyboards. With the aid of the technology, public health officials soon would be able to deploy apps with the ability to sense other smartphones nearby. If a person learns they have the coronavirus, they could indicate on their app they’ve been infected — and people whose smartphones have been in their vicinity would be notified, regardless of whether their devices run on Apple or Google software … The companies said the technology would not track a user’s specific location, nor would they reveal an infected person’s identity to the tech giants or to governments worldwide."

The  tools are expected to be available to developers as soon as next month.

There is a challenge, of course - the fact that the use of the tool will be voluntary and "entirely in the hands of users: Because the system is voluntary, it relies on people downloading and using the app properly. To address concerns about potential abuse, users would have to get a confirmed diagnosis from a public health agency that they have the coronavirus — along with a special code, for example — that triggers the signal to other devices, according to Apple."

KC's View:

The single biggest inhibitor to "reopening the economy" is the lack of broadly available testing … we may know that there have been more than a half-million confirmed cases of Covid-19, but the key word there is confirmed.  We have no idea at this moment how many people may be infected, how many people may have been a-symptomatic but infected, and how many people can and should return to work and how many can and should not.

Such a tool would be a big step forward.   I'll admit that the possibility of using for unwanted government surveillance bothers me, and I hope that one of the built-in options will be the ability to turn it off at some point down the road, when there is no more pandemic.  But short of an effective vaccine that stops people from contracting the virus, this will help us to move forward.   (By the way, spare me from the few people who inevitably will not want to be vaccinated, and by doing so will put other people at risk.  In the words of William Shakespeare from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" … What fools these mortals be.)