Apple and Google released the first public version of their COVID-19 Exposure Notification system today. The system is designed to notify users of potential exposure to any confirmed cases of COVID-19, while maintaining the privacy of identified information and location data.
Public health agencies can now use the API in apps and release them to the public for tracking COVID-19. Till now, Apple and Google had only released beta versions of their softwares to help health authorities with the development process.
The API is available in iOS 13.5 for iPhones. Apple shared that over 22 countries and several states in the US i.e. Alabama, South Carolina, North Dakota, etc., have requested or already received access to their API system to date, with more countries expected to join soon. Tim Cook shared the announcement on Twitter as well.
Technology can help health officials rapidly tell someone they may have been exposed to COVID-19. Today the Exposure Notification API we created with @Google is available to help public health agencies make their COVID-19 apps effective while protecting user privacy.
— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) May 20, 2020
Developers working on behalf of government health sectors can now issue apps that are made using this API. So far, both companies have conducted close to 24 briefings and tech meetings with public officials from health sectors, app developers, and epidemiologists from around the world.
How does Apple and Google’s API operate?
The system works as a non-centralized identifier system that randomly generates keys on a user’s device. However, these keys are not tied to the user’s specific or personal information. The API allows specific public agencies to contribute to factors that define potential exposure in terms of exposed distance and time. Transmission risk and other factors can be set as per the government’s standards as well.
Furthermore, Apple and Google will allow apps to utilize their API and access user data which will be voluntarily submitted. Both companies are putting privacy as an utmost priority, including encryption of all Bluetooth metadata – which offers a minor possibility of associating a user with their specific device, which may later lead to their identification.
Apple and Google provided the following statement about their API:
One of the most effective techniques that public health officials have used during outbreaks is called contact tracing. Through this approach, public health officials contact, test, treat and advise people who may have been exposed to an affected person. One new element of contact tracing is Exposure Notifications: using privacy-preserving digital technology to tell someone they may have been exposed to the virus. Exposure Notification has the specific goal of rapid notification, which is especially important to slow the spread of the disease with a virus that can be spread asymptomatically.
To help, Apple and Google cooperated to build Exposure Notifications technology that will enable apps created by public health agencies to work more accurately, reliably and effectively across both Android phones and iPhones. Over the last several weeks, our two companies have worked together, reaching out to public health officials scientists, privacy groups and government leaders all over the world to get their input and guidance.
Previously, both companies had announced plans to make their API a system-level feature in the next updates of their OS. The companies state that the possibility of this update this stands, and it will be a useful feature for further tracking the spread of COVID-19.