- Apple and Google have launched software allowing public health agencies to create contact tracing apps that will notify users if they've been close to a person who has tested positive for COVID-19.
- The infrastructure, dubbed Exposure Notification, uses the Bluetooth radios within iOS and Android systems for contact tracing apps and will be part of a software update the companies are pushing out Wednesday. Amid privacy concerns, Apple and Google say the apps will be fully opt-in and have other built-in consumer protections.
- Twenty-two countries and multiple states including Alabama, North Dakota and South Carolina have requested and been given access to the technology so far, the companies told Healthcare Dive.
Contact tracing can be an important tool in public health's arsenal to gain a holistic picture of the pandemic and tamp down on disease spread, especially as states begin reopening public spaces and businesses. Google and Apple's highly-anticipated project, first announced mid-April, was released Wednesday and is expected to be updated in June.
The capability relies on an application programming interface letting approved tracing apps tap into a smartphone's Bluetooth radio and monitor whether the user is close to someone who is infected or later tests positive for COVID-19. The app alerts its user, who can then self-quarantine while they work to get tested.
The companies have maintained the project protects consumer privacy as much as possible. The software is fully opt-in and will not track user locations or collect identifying data. Governments will not be able to turn the apps on silently, and Google and Apple have the ability to shut down the broadcast system region-by-region as the pandemic eases.
But consumers are leery of the technology, with only half reporting they'd be comfortable using smartphone apps to track potential contact with infected individuals, according to Kaiser Family Foundation polling. People are twice as willing to download such an app if it's managed by a public health agency than a private technology company.
Contact tracing apps are also raising alarms among civil liberty groups, as Silicon Valley giants don't have a pristine track record when it comes to managing patient data. Google is currently embroiled in an HHS Office for Civil Rights investigation after using millions of Americans' medical data to develop new product lines last year.
Digital tracing advocates worry this wariness will hamstring adoption of the apps, which require roughly 60% of the population to use them to be truly effective. Apple and Google's software will likely have to be paired with an old-school, physical contact tracing approach involving thousands of workers interviewing infected people and tracking down anyone they've been in close physical contact with.
States are struggling to scale their contact tracing infrastructure amid the pandemic. Nearly all are conducting some form of tracking and reporting, but strategies vary widely from hiring or reassigning government employees to deploying the National Guard to taking a more tech-driven approach.
For example, several states including Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah are using voluntary cell phone tracking. Kansas is analyzing anonymized cell phone data; Vermont is using a text-based monitoring system and Rhode Island partnered with SalesForce to create a COVID-19 tracking database.
Apple and Google's software will be used in North Dakota's CARE19 app and the South Carolina SC-Safer-Together app as they move to reopen their states, a spokesperson for the companies told Healthcare Dive. Alabama's state health officer said the state will use the technology to work its exposure notification infrastructure to slow the outbreak.