- Apple and Google on Tuesday announced a new capability meant to simplify deployment of their COVID-19 exposure notifications tool by not requiring regional public health groups to build or maintain a custom application. The move is almost certain to exacerbate privacy concerns around the venture as the tech giants take point on creating the exposure notification apps themselves, previously under the purview of approved public health authorities.
- Public health agencies that use the new system, called Exposure Notifications Express, will give Apple and Google basic information, like how to reach the agency, COVID-19 guidelines and recommendations, and the agency's name, logo and criteria for triggering an exposure notification. Apple and Google will then use the information to create an exposure notification system tailored to that public health agency.
- Maryland, Nevada and Virginia will be the first states to deploy the system, along with Washington, D.C. It will be available to other states later this fall, the two companies said Tuesday.
Despite repeated calls from public health experts — and a lot of time to do so — the Trump administration has made little concrete progress on implementing a nationwide contact tracing infrastructure. States have enacted piecemeal tracing approaches, but a lack of national coordination has allowed the coronavirus to spread relatively unchecked in the U.S., infecting some 6 million people so far.
Apple and Google first launched their system in late May. The software uses Bluetooth radios within iOS and Android systems to track distances between phones. Users get a notification if their phones come close to an infected person.
The second phase launched Tuesday, based on input during 100 briefings with public health officials, epidemiologists and app developers, is meant to make it faster for public health authorities to use the system by nixing many of the upfront requirements of creating an app and setting up servers.
Though Google and Apple will create the apps, public health agencies control what risk scores trigger a notification, advisable next steps and guidance to exposed people on further contract tracing and containment initiatives. The iOS and Android tools will be interoperable with one another and with existing exposure notifications apps.
Public health agencies can still elect to build their own custom applications if they choose.
Spokespeople from both companies stressed the tool was "another option" for states, "without compromising on the project's core tenets of user privacy and security."
Whether consumers will use it is an open question.
People are twice as willing to download a contact tracing app if it's managed by their local or state department or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, than if run by a private technology company, according to April polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
And concerns about privacy have dogged the project from the start, despite what Apple and Google tout as extensive privacy protections. The system is wholly opt-in, and doesn't share location data or user identity with the companies. Google and Apple have also pledged to shut down the broadcast system region-by-region when it's no longer needed.
But servers could identify people in other ways, like IP address. There's also a risk of false positives in the system triggering erroneous alerts. And users decide whether they want to report a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, so human error or simple apathy could prove to be another wrench in the works.
Apple users in states using Exposure Notifications Express who upgrade to iOS 13.7 on Tuesday will get a notification telling them the service is available. If they want, they can turn the feature on without downloading a separate application.
Android users will be notified to the service later this month but will be prompted to download an app from their public health agency, created by Google.
The two tech giants stress the system is not a substitute for physical contact tracing.
And the effectiveness of automated notifications apps depend on how many people use them. They need about about 60% of the population to use them to be beneficial, according to researchers at contact tracing project Covid-Watch.
To date, more than 20 countries and regions have issued apps based on the software. In the U.S., 25 states and Washington, D.C., have been testing the system, and six states representing roughly 55% of the population — Virginia, North Dakota, Wyoming, Alabama, Arizona and Nevada — have launched.
Virginia, the first state to go-live an app built on the infrastructure in early August, has had almost half a million citizens download the app in its first few weeks, according to Norman Oliver, commissioner of the state's health department.
Apple and Google are also working with the Association of Public Health Laboratories to stand up a national key server that would allow the systems to work across state lines, no matter the users' originating location.