Apple, Google will build coronavirus contact tracing software right into your phone

Sundar Pichai and Tim Cook

Source: Reuters; Apple

Apple and Google announced on Tuesday that future versions of the iOS and Android operating systems will include the companies’ Covid-19 notification system that previously required users to install an app.

The exposure notification system uses Bluetooth signals from smartphones that have opted-in to determine how closely and for how long two phones were nearby, without collecting the location or identify of the users.

If one of the phone’s users were to test positive for Covid-19, then the system could send a push notification to other participating phones that they may have been exposed to the virus. 

Previously, this system required a user to go to an app store and install an app made by a public health authority. But the new system, “Exposure Notifications Express,” will enable the same public health groups to send notification to people at risk for exposure without the need to develop and maintain the apps.

The ability to opt-in to the system without downloading an app is intended to improve adoption of the system, which would improve its effectiveness because it requires a large number of people sharing Bluetooth signals to work. 

As the next step in our work with public health authorities on Exposure Notifications, we are making it easier and faster for them to use the Exposure Notifications System without the need for them to build and maintain an app,” Apple and Google representatives said in a statement.

Instead of building an app, with the new exposure notification system, public health groups can submit a configuration file with their contact information and their guidance. With the new system, users will get a push notification when it’s available in their state or region. Clicking on that notification will bring the user to a series of screens with information about the system which give the option to the user to opt-in. 

The new system doesn’t preclude existing apps. Apps will still be available from public health authorities, especially if they have other features like symptom trackers. On Android phones, after opting in to Exposure Notifications Express, the user will still download an automatically generated app. iPhones don’t require an app and configuration options will be available in the Settings app. 

Exposure notification technology and contact-tracing apps were once heralded as a critical part of some countries’ strategies to lift their lockdowns, but low adoption and unclear effectiveness in some countries have dampened enthusiasm for the apps. In Virginia, the first state to launch an exposure notification app in the U.S., almost half a million people have downloaded its app, Covidwise, or roughly 5% of its population. Apple and Google say that the apps have already identified confirmed infections that may not have been found using other methods. 

Apple and Google representatives said on Tuesday that a new study from Cristophe Fraser at Oxford University has reassessed and lowered his estimate about how many people need to be participating in exposure notification for it to be effective. He estimates 15% update of these apps in addition to contact tracing could reduce Covid-19 infections by 15%. A previous study that suggested that 60% adoption was needed.

Six states in the United States have released apps using exposure notification, and 25 states are interested in the technology, company representatives said. DC, Maryland, Nevada, and Virginia have committed to the new app-free approach as well. For now, the system does not work across state borders. 

Apple and Google representatives said the new software will be included in iOS 13.7 for iPhones, which will be released on Tuesday. Google will include the new software in Android updates coming out this month.

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