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Google and Apple release contact tracing app API


Google and Apple delivered their contact tracing app API to public health agencies across the globe. The apps would allow Bluetooth pings between smartphones within six and a half feet of each other. And in theory, these apps would notify you if you had been in close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19. In practice, public health authorities will have to encourage around 60% people in a given state or country to download the app in order to meaningfully conduct contact tracing/exposure notification. Computerworld executive editor Ken Mingis and PCWorld/Macworld’s Michael Simon join Juliet to discuss Apple and Google’s unprecedented collaboration, privacy concerns and how state and federal governments will utilize the API. 

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Everything we know about the Google/Apple COVID-19 contact tracing tech

Creeping erosion of privacy? Desperately needed technology-based solution to a global life or death problem? A little of both? Here is what we think we know now about the Apple/Google contact tracing technology.

What has happened?

Apple and Google are working together to develop COVID-19 contact tracing technology for both Android and iOS devices.

“All of us at Apple and Google believe there has never been a more important moment to work together to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems,” the companies said in a press release announcing the move.

The two giant corporations have published draft technical documentation including Bluetooth and cryptography specifications and framework documentation.

Here is what they have to say:

“Across the world, governments and health authorities are working together to find solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic, to protect people and get society back up and running. Software developers are contributing by crafting technical tools to help combat the virus and save lives. 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.”

What Apple CEO Tim Cook said

In a Tweet, Apple CEO Tim Cook said:

“Contact tracing can help slow the spread of COVID-19 and can be done without compromising user privacy. We’re working with [Google] to help health officials harness Bluetooth technology in a way that also respects transparency and consent.”

Why is this technology required?

Public health officials worldwide believe contact tracing can be used to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. Mobile telecoms, other companies and governments are using contact tracing in an attempt to mitigate its spread.

What this means in practise is that mobile networks are sharing the data they hold around people’s movements with governments, which alarms privacy advocates who see it as a potential move to surveillance state.

An ACLU paper pertaining to this is available here.

Taiwan, Singapore, China, South Korea, UK and Israel are all using this kind of information. OneZero explains some of the ways in which these technologies are being deployed.

Apple and Google hope that by making useful information available in a highly anonymized form they will be able to both boost public health response, while also protecting end user privacy.

How it works

  • When in place, smartphones running the technology will broadcast randomly created, unique identifiers using Bluetooth Low Energy that change every 15-minutes.
  • Any device within two meters distance will record that signal ID, which is designed to protect end user anonymity.
  • This data doesn’t get used unless other conditions are met.
  • The identifier contains no other personal information.
  • The list of identifiers you have interacted with doesn’t leave your device unless you choose to share it.
  • If you test positive with the virus you will not be identified to other users, Apple or Google.
  • All matching takes place on the device, and uses relay servers which forward information to your device. That way you can see if you have been in proximity of someone suffering COVID-19 in the last 14-days.

It’s an opt-in system

To be effective, the system would require millions of people to opt into the system and trust the technology giants’ safeguards.

What does the technology consist of?

Apple and Google’s comprehensive solution will include application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology.

How will this be introduced?

Given the urgent need, the solution will be implemented in two steps, which Apple and Google both hope will maintain user privacy.

  • In May, the companies will release APIs that enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. Official apps will be made available.
  • In “the coming months”, Apple and Google will work to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms.

How is privacy protected?

Individuals will be able to opt-in to participate in the system. It is also designed to enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities.

“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,” the companies said.

What about the data?

The system keeps data on devices that have been near each other.

Apps from officially sanctioned public health authorities will get access to this data on your device, and users who download those apps can report if they’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The system also alerts people by periodically checking broadcast keys to see if anyone has tested positive.

If you have been close to someone who has been infected you’ll receive an alert, but won’t be given the identity of the person you were near.

This is how the system works in a more personal sense

In practise, the system might work like this:

  • Two or more people spend 10 minutes of so in close proximity (within two meters) of one another.
  • When they do, their smartphones exchange anonymous identifiers.
  • Should one of them subsequently be diagnosed with COVID-19 the system will be updated with this news via a health authority app that uses the Google/Apple API.
  • If the diagnosed user consents to it, their most recent identifiers will be shared to the system which uses public health data.
  • This information is then broadcast via the app to all users, and anyone whose device identifies your anonymised identifier as a contact it has been in touch with will be alerted that they have been exposed to the virus.
  • They will then be advised of the next step they should take according to their government health advisors: Self-isolation, medical contact or testing, for example.

The process for the most part takes place on your device. Location information is not shared and data that is shared is anonymized and remains subject to your consent.

Isn’t this system ripe for abuse?

There are two obvious forms of potential abuse:

Surveillance-hungry states may use the system as a thin wedge toward deeper oversight over communities. The use of frequently changed anonymous identifiers and the need for user consent is part of the protection against this.

Attention-seeking users may attempt to game the system, claiming illness to cause panic among others. This is what integration with authorised public health apps is meant to protect against, as it implies some protection against the potential for deliberate or mistaken self-identification to generate such panic (but see ‘In the UK’, below).

In the UK

The UK government isn’t doing enough testing, its many critics say. As a result of its failure to prepare, deployment of the technology in that country will allow people to self-diagnose, reports 9to5Mac.

This will reduce the accuracy of the app (which depends on verified health testing) and also make it possible to create unwarranted panic among others based on an individual’s flawed self-diagnosis. It will also nurture both over- and under-reporting, as people with mild symptoms don’t report and those with possible symptoms do report.

Criticisms of the solution

There are several emerging criticisms of the solution. University of Cambridge professor Ross Anderson points to several problems, one of which being that in built-up areas the Bluetooth-based contact tracing feature may pick up false positives, such as identifying neighbors on either side of dividing walls as having been in contact.

Critics also warn that the same technology could be used to monitor other forms of social contact. A government may demand its use for other scenarios, such as murder investigations or even to silence dissent.

Where can I get more information?

Both Apple and Google have published extensive draft API’s explaining use of this technology and how developers may be able to implement it within their apps.

Apple has published the following:

Google’s Android Contact Tracing API is available here. You can find specifications for contact tracing with Bluetooth and its cryptography here and here. Google’s explanatory document explaining privacy safe contact tracing using Bluetooth LE is here.

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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The 3 Best Free Apps for Syncing Android Contact Photos With Facebook

If you’re running stock Android, you’ll know the frustration of not having contact photos for most of your contacts. Thankfully, some apps can sync your Facebook friend’s photos to their contacts on Android, so you never have to see the placeholder head again.

Let’s explore some great apps that sync up your friends’ Facebook photos to your contacts.

How to Sync Facebook Picture With Your Contacts on Android

A while ago, there were a good number of apps that could sync your friend’s Facebook photos to your contacts on Android. Then, Facebook changed how much access apps could have to Facebook profiles, which caused many of these apps to stop working. These days, there are only a handful of apps which have found a way to continue syncing Facebook photos with your Android contacts.

1. Sync.ME

If you want a “set and forget” way to sync your contacts between Facebook and Android, look no further than Sync.ME. Setting up the sync is easy; you go into the settings, access the account section, and attach Sync.ME to your Facebook account.

Once you’ve verified your account, Sync.ME will automatically update your contacts’ photos depending on the timeframe listed in the settings. If you’d rather not wait, you can press the Sync button at the bottom of the main screen—it’s the one that looks like a refresh button.

Sync.ME will then display all the accounts you’ve attached. While it can perform Facebook syncs, it can also perform Instagram, Google+, and Twitter accounts. Once you’ve connected and selected your Facebook account, tap the sync button. The app will try to sync everyone’s Facebook photos to your Android contacts.

Once it finishes syncing your contacts to their respective accounts, Sync.ME will show you all the proposed matches it made. This is where you can double-check that the app found the correct people. If it didn’t, you can let it know it found the wrong profile before continuing.

The app will also show you a list of contacts that it struggled to assign profiles to. You can solve these by tapping on each contact and looking them up on Facebook.

With a profile tied to each of your contacts, Sync.ME will update them all. It will also remember the matches for the next time it syncs, so you only go through this process once. Its ease of use and independent nature makes Sync.ME the best app to sync contacts with Facebook.

Once everything is synced up, you can go a step further and back up your contacts on your phone to Google.

Download: Sync.ME (Free, premium version available)

2. Contact Sync for Facebook (CoSy)

There was once a useful app called CoSy that synced your Facebook images with your Android contacts. However, after Facebook clamped down on how apps can use its API, CoSy shut down. Thankfully, it’s risen again with a new way of importing contact photos.

At the time of writing, CoSy is still under development, so it’s still a little buggy. Despite this, when it works, it does a fantastic job of matching your contacts up to their Facebook pictures.

To sync your contacts, you first log in to Facebook via the app. CoSy will then go through all your Facebook friends and import them into the app. Once it finishes, it’ll then scan your Android contacts and attempt to pair them up with the imported list of Facebook friends.

CoSy then gives each pairing a confidence rating. A contact who shares the full name of a Facebook friend will have a higher confidence rating than a contact which only shares the first name. It also tries to pair up names that look similar but aren’t identical, which can end in some odd results. For example, the app may pair your friend Dennis’ photo for your “Dentist” contact!

If the app got a pairing correct, you can confirm it with giving a tick. This lets the app know which of your contacts corresponds to that specific friend. When you sync the photo, the app uses these links to assign the correct photo to the right person. This feature makes CoSy a good Sync.ME alternative if you want to control how the app links your contacts to their Facebook accounts.

The best part is, once the initial linking finishes, the app can be left alone to sync by itself. You can tell the app to sync after a set amount of hours, days, or weeks, and set the time for the sync to occur. You can tell it to only sync on Wi-Fi, non-metered networks, or while the phone is charging.

Download: CoSy (Free, premium version available)

3. ContactSyncDuck

ContactSyncDuck is a compelling case, because its major flaw may be a significant boon for some. When Facebook clamped down on how apps use its API, ContactSyncDuck got around this problem by asking the user to set up the sync themselves manually.

Unfortunately, ContactSyncDuck has no way of finding your contact’s Facebook page by itself. You have to point the app to each person’s profile by writing their Facebook ID in their Android contact details. When you tell ContactSyncDuck to sync up the photos, it goes through your contact lists, picks out the contacts with Facebook IDs, and syncs their picture.

This does sound like a chore, and if you want to sync up hundreds of contacts with their Facebook images, using ContactSyncDuck will take a long time. However, it will never ask you for your Facebook login details, and it never uses your Facebook account to pry into your friend list.

When you initiate a sync, the app visits each contact’s page, grabs their profile picture, and saves it to your phone. It’s just like asking a friend to visit each of your friend’s pages and grab the picture, except it won’t complain nearly as much. This makes it the best app to sync Facebook photos with your contacts if you’re concerned about privacy.

Facebook is a security and privacy nightmare

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already, so some users would prefer the manual route instead of giving an app access to their account.

ContactSyncDuck is a focused tool, meaning it is light on additional features. If you’re not interested in anything past syncing with Facebook, you’ll find ContactSyncDuck refreshingly lightweight. There’s no premium plans or phone-invading permissions; just a simple settings screen and a sync button.

If you have any Instagram friends that shy away from Facebook, you’ll be pleased to know that ContactSyncDuck also works with Instagram profile pictures. The setup is identical to Facebook profile, except you enter the Instagram username instead of the Facebook ID.

Download: ContactSyncDuck for Facebook/Instagram (Free)

Keeping Tabs on Your Contacts

If you’re fortunate enough to have hundreds of friends,it can be hard to put a name to a face with your Android contacts. Thankfully, some apps automatically check your friends’ Facebook accounts and update their contact photos with their profile images.

If you want to learn how to sort your Android contacts further, be sure to learn how to pin apps and contacts to the share menu

How to Pin Apps and Contacts to the Android Share Menu

How to Pin Apps and Contacts to the Android Share Menu

You can now pin apps and contacts to the top of the Share menu in Android. Here’s how to make use of this awesome feature.
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How to Let a Contact Bypass iOS’ Do Not Disturb Mode

iPhone Lock screen showing Do Not Disturb notification
Khamosh Pathak

The iPhone’s Do Not Disturb feature is a great way to make sure your handset doesn’t disturb you when you’re sleeping or busy. But if you want a certain contact to still be able to get ahold of you, you can whitelist them. Here’s how.

How the iOS Do Not Disturb Feature Works

Do Not Disturb automatically mutes all calls, notifications, and alerts you get when your iPhone is locked. The feature can be enabled by tapping on the “Crescent moon” icon from the Control Center.

Tap on the Crescent Moon icon from Control Center to enable Do Not Disturb

If you 3D Touch/Haptic Touch the Do Not Disturb icon, you can enable it from one hour or until you leave the current location. You can also set up Do Not Disturb on a schedule by going to Settings > Do Not Disturb > Scheduled.

Tap on the Do Not Disturb toggle to enable it from Settings

By default, Do Not Disturb works as an all-or-nothing switch. However, you can add exceptions to the Do Not Disturb filter in a couple of ways.

RELATED: How to Configure Do Not Disturb On Your iPhone and iPad

How to Whitelist Favorites in Do Not Disturb

The Favorites tab in the Phone app is a modern take on the speed-dial. Add a couple of numbers that you frequently contact for a one-tap connection. The Favorites feature also has a couple of other benefits such as the option to add the Favorites widget to your Lock screen.

The Favorites list also integrates directly with the Do Not Disturb feature. To set things up, open the Settings app, go to “Do Not Disturb,” select “Phone,” and then tap on “Allow Calls From.”

Tap on Allow Calls From option in Do Not Disturb section

Next, switch the setting to “Favorites.” With this set, anyone who calls you from your Favorites list will be let in.

Switch to Favorites to allow calls from your Favorites list

iOS also has an option in the Do Not Disturb section called “Repeated Calls.” When you enable this feature, a second call from the same caller within three minutes will be let through.

How to Add Contacts to Favorites

If you haven’t set up the Favorites list, you can do so by going to the Phone app and tapping on the “Favorites” tab. Add your family members and close friends to this list by tapping on the “Plus” button in the top-left corner.

Tap on the Plus button in the Favorites tab to add a new contact as favorite

Now search for a contact from your contact book.

Search for a contact and then select one from the list

Tap on the contact and you’ll see a popup with all their available contact information (including alternative numbers and FaceTime options).

Choose the “Call’ option and then select their number.

Tap on Call and then select the number to add them to Favorites list

They’ll be added to your Favorites list. Repeat the process for all the contacts you want to whitelist from Do Not Disturb.

Let Contacts Through Using Emergency Bypass

The Favorites method for letting calls through will not work for everyone. I, for instance, use Favorites as a shortcut for accessing my frequently used contacts, which includes all my family members and friends.

In case of emergency, I want only a handful of contacts to get through the Do Not Disturb filter. If you’re in the same boat, you can use the Emergency Bypass feature added in iOS 10.

The Emergency Bypass feature works on a per-contact basis and includes controls for both calls and texting. Once you enable Emergency Bypass for a contact, their call or text can come through even if you have Do Not Disturb enabled and if your phone is on silent mode.

To enable Emergency Bypass feature for a contact, open the Phone app and search for the contact.

Search for a contact and then select one from the list

Tap on the contact to open their contact card. Then tap on the “Edit” button in the top-right corner.

Tap on Edit in the contact card

Swipe down until you find the “Ringtone” option and tap on it.

Select the Ringtone option in the contact editing screen

From the top of this screen, tap on the toggle next to “Emergency Bypass” to enable the feature. Tap on “Done” to save the setting and go back to the previous screen.

Turn on toggle to enable Emergency Bypass for a contact

You can do the same thing for text messages by tapping on “Text Tone” and enabling the “Emergency Bypass” feature from the next screen.

You can repeat this process for all the contacts you want to let through the Do Not Disturb filter. Once it’s set up, any time they give you a call or send you a message, your iPhone will ring.

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How to Hide Email Addresses in an Outlook Contact Group

outlook logo

When you send an email to an Outlook contact group (formally known as a distribution list), you might want to hide the email addresses in the group from the recipients. Here’s the easiest way to protect people’s private information.

What’s a Contact Group?

In Office 365 (O365), Microsoft’s subscription version of Office, two separate groups have replaced distribution lists:

  • O365 Groups: Designed for on-the-fly collaboration among a group of people, these groups include a shared mailbox, calendar, file store, Planner, and OneNote Notebook. These are great for small project teams, organizing your local theater group’s rehearsals, or any other scenario where you need quick and simple collaboration tools.
  • Contact Groups: These are a bunch of email addresses added to a group. Instead of having to add each of them individually to an email, you can email the group name, and everyone in that group will be added as a recipient. If you think this sounds exactly like a distribution list, you’d be right, with one notable exception: By default, distribution lists (and O365 Groups) appear in your organization’s global address book for everyone to see. Contact groups are personal to you.

RELATED: What’s the Difference Between Office 365 and Office 2016?

If you don’t have O365 and are using a stand-alone version of Office without web apps, you might still have distribution lists available to you. We’ll be showing you how to hide the names of the recipients in a contact group, but the same steps work for distribution lists.

Why Would You Hide the Names in a Contact Group?

Sometimes it’s just common courtesy. Your friends might be okay with you contacting them by email, but they likely don’t want their contact information shared with everyone you send mass emails to.

Plenty of data protection and compliance issues provide good reasons to hide someone’s email address. If you deal with any sensitive information, especially financial or medical, you’re probably obliged to keep people’s identity private.

Email addresses are often easy to link to a real person as they are considered “individually identifiable information” by both HIPAA in the United States and GDPR in Europe. So if you’re emailing a support group, for example, you shouldn’t be sharing the recipient’s contact information.

How Do You Hide the Names in a Contact Group?

The good news is that hiding the names by using the BCC option when you create your email is simple.

The BCC field in a new email

BCC stands for blind carbon copy. You’ve almost certainly used the CC (carbon copy) option when you want to include someone who’s not the primary recipient of an email. BCC works exactly as CC does, except that BCC recipients see only the name of the sender and the name of the person in the “To” field.

People who’ve been BCC’d also don’t see if anyone has been CC’d and don’t receive any replies if someone clicks “Reply All.”

The BCC field is not visible by default when you create a new email, but accessing it is easy. Open a new mail in Outlook and click Options > BCC.

The Options tab and the BCC button.

This will display the BCC field in the new mail.

The BCC button and the BCC field.

You have to do this once only. In the future, all emails will show the BCC option. If you want to hide the BCC field, click Options > BCC from any email, and it won’t appear again.

Now that it’s visible, enter your name in the “To” field and your contact group in the “BCC” field.

An email with my address in the To field and my contact group in the BCC field.

Everyone in the contact group will get the email, but they’ll be able to see only the person who sent it (you) and the person in the “To” field (also you).

The first time you do this, consider putting a note in the email explaining to people you’re using BCC to protect their privacy. This will stop your less tech-savvy recipients from wondering why they’re getting an email that looks like it’s from you to you!

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