Google and Apple have launched their coronavirus contact-tracing system on smartphones around the world. This gives public health agencies, including the NHS, the option of building contact-tracing apps based on the companies’ technology.
“This technology is in the hands of public health agencies across the world who will take the lead and we will continue to support their efforts,” Apple and Google said.
Apple and Google have been collaborating on the Exposure Notifications System API for several weeks. As planned, the API will use Bluetooth to exchange keys between phones. If a user tests positive for COVID-19, they can inform their contact tracing app, which will use the API to send exposure notifications to people they may have come in contact with. The API will not gather location data or be able to identify users.
Apple and Google are providing the API, but PHAs will have to develop their own contact tracing apps. In an attempt to promote adoption and avoid fragmentation, use of the API will be restricted to one app per country — though there may be some exception if a country has opted for a state or regional approach. A handful of US states, including Alabama, North Dakota and South Carolina, plan to use the API for their own apps.
While 22 countries have requested the API, that doesn’t mean they will all put it to use. The UK said it won’t use the Apple-Google model, and countries like Australia have already rolled out their own solutions. Still, Apple and Google expect more countries to request the API in the coming weeks, and the World Health Organization (WHO) said it will release a contact tracing app for countries that don’t make their own. The WHO may use the Apple-Google tech.
Apple is adding exposure notification functionality to iOS 13.5, released today, so its devices should work with the API and iOS apps that use it. Google is rolling out a Play Services update today, so Android devices running 6.0 and above will be compatible.
Despite safeguards put in place to protect user privacy all metadata associated with Bluetooth will be encrypted the API and contact tracing apps will likely raise privacy concerns. And yet, to be truly effective, they will need widespread adoption.