COVID-19 Exposure Notifications: Apple and Google's coronavirus contact tracing system explained

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Apple and Google have come together to offer a coronavirus contact tracing system for iOS and Android devices.

Contact tracing is something disease experts have painstakingly done for years to manually track the spread of viruses and contain the number of people exposed. Now, with smartphones, contact tracing can be done more quickly and anonymously. Apple and Google’s system will alert iPhone and Android users if they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus through “exposure notifications”.

Apple and Google have released APIs for app developers from public health authorities and governments. These are a set of tools or building blocks that allow app developers to integrate and offer COVID-19 Exposure Notifications. In other words, they can give their users a way to use Apple and Google’s system and be notified if and when they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus.

Hypothetically, everyone with an iOS or Android phone could opt-in and help quickly flatten the curve globally.

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What are COVID-19 Exposure Notifications?

Apple and Google are calling their contact tracing system COVID-19 Exposure Notifications, essentially because, with it, iPhone and Android device owners will be able to receive notifications about whether they’ve been exposed to people diagnosed with COVID-19.

The system uses your phone’s short-range Bluetooth Low Energy transmissions, coupled with randomised tokens, to look for individuals who are within a few feet of you every five minutes. Your phone logs those tokens, and if someone who is COVID-19-positive has crossed your path, an alert will be sent to your phone about the potential exposure.

You will also be shown information about what to do to limit the spread of the virus or how to seek medical assistance if needed.

App developers from public health authorities and governments who wish to offer their users a way to be alerted if they’ve been exposed to the novel coronavirus can also integrate Apple and Google’s COVID-19 Exposure Notifications into their apps. But APIs will only be able to be used by verified apps from public health authorities; they must meet specific criteria for privacy and data control.

When will COVID-19 Exposure Notifications be available?

You’ll most likely be able to download a third-party app from a health authority to begin using COVID-19 Exposure Notifications sometime this summer. Phase two of Apple and Google’s contact tracing system, however, will allow it to work on your iPhone or Android phone without a third-party app, as it will be available directly through the device itself. That won’t likely happen until later this year.

Apple’s latest software updates introduce the Exposure Notification API, which enables public health authorities to create iPhone and iPad apps that can hopefully help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Apps using the API will allow you to receive notifications should you come into contact with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and wants to share that information. 

Apple said that apps from governments and health authorities from more than 22 countries have signed up to participate, meaning COVID-19 contract tracing apps that use the Exposure Notifications system should be coming soon. 

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How to disable COVID-10 Exposure Notifications

iPhone users

COVID-19 Exposure Notifications will be turned on by default at the system level on iPhone via an upcoming iOS 13.5 software update. Once your iPhone is running that update, if you want to adjust your COVID-10 Exposure Notifications’ settings, you can do so.

Just follow these steps:

  • Go to Settings on your iPhone
  • Swipe down and tap Privacy
  • Choose Health
  • Tap COVID-19 Exposure Notifications at the top
  • Tap the toggle to turn notifications off (or on if you already turned them off)

We will update how this process works for Android users once that information becomes available.

Which devices will get COVID-19 Exposure Notifications?

Apple plans to roll out an update for devices released in the past four years. Google said it will work with Android 6.0 or higher.

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Are COVID-19 Exposure Notifications safe to use?

Contact tracing involves identifying whether an infected person has been in contact with others, and it’s a proven way to contain the spread of infectious diseases such as COVID-19, but there are valid privacy concerns about using any sort of surveillance, even if it’s just tracking users with phone data, to help combat the coronavirus. Any implementation would need to be limited and avoid violating user privacy.

If you willingly share your data, Apple and Google have said your identity will be anonymized, as their system broadcasts anonymous cryptographic keys, which are randomly generated and cycle every 15 minutes to maintain privacy. And central servers won’t store interactions between keys. Bluetooth data will be encrypted, too, making it even harder for people to be identified by hackers.

Apple and Google will not receive identifying information about the users, location data, or any other devices the user has been nearby.

The system has been published in white papers, which you can view here.

Want to know more?

Statements from the CEOs of Apple and Google are below.

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