Apple and Google Release Software to Detect Virus Exposure

App Store and Google Play stickers on a shop door.

Apple and Google released their new smartphone technology to detects when a user has been exposed to the novel coronavirus. The software can be used to develop apps that check when a user has spent time near an infected user.

Or it can be another user who later tests positive for the virus. Their new phone technology will allow people to be notified automatically if they might have been exposed to the coronavirus.

The companies had announced the unprecedented collaboration to leverage their technology to help trace and contain the spread of COVID19. Moreover, 22 countries and several US states are already planning to build voluntary phone apps using their software.

The software relies on Bluetooth wireless technology. 

Many governments have unsuccessfully tried to roll out their phone apps to fight the spread of the virus.  Many of those apps have encountered technical issues on Apple and Android phones. So, they haven’t been widely adopted. 

They often use GPS to track people’s locations, which Apple and Google are omitting from their new tool. This is because of privacy and accuracy concerns.

Public health agencies from Germany to the states of Alabama and South Carolina have been waiting to use this. 

Meanwhile, other governments have said the tech giants’ privacy restrictions will be a hindrance. That’s because public health workers will have no access to the data.

Apple and Google said they’re not trying to replace contact tracing.  That is a pillar of infection control that involves trained public health workers. They are the ones who reach out to people who may have exposed themselves to an infected person.

However, they said their automatic exposure notification system can augment that process. It can slow the spread of Covid-19 by virus carriers who interact with strangers and aren’t yet showing symptoms.

Apple and Google Release the long-awaited App

Close-up shot of brand new Apple iPhone 5S and Google Nexus 5 smartphones.

The identity of app users will under protected via encryption as well as anonymous identifier beacons that change frequently. The software will be downloadable on most Androids and iPhone models that were released since September 2015.

Apple and Google companies said in a joint statement on Wednesday that user adoption is key to success. They believe that these strong privacy protections are also the best way to encourage use of these apps.

The new technology is the product of a rare partnership between the rival tech giants. It solves some of the main technical challenges that governments have had in building Bluetooth-based apps. 

It’ll make it easier for iPhones and Android phones to detect each other and work across national and regional borders.  Moreover, fix some of the problems that led previous apps to quickly drain a phone’s battery.

Remarks from state officials in North Dakota, Alabama, and South Carolina signal that they plan to use it. 

North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, a Republican, said they invite other states to join them in leveraging smartphone technologies. This will strengthen existing contact tracing efforts, which are critical to getting communities and economies back up and running.

North Dakota had already launched a location-tracking app. About 4% of state residents are using it. 

It’s higher than other US states with similar apps. However, it falls far short of the participation rate that experts say is necessary to make such technology useful.

Tim Brookins is the CEO of ProudCrowd, a startup that developed North Dakota’s app. He said, on Wednesday, that North Dakotans will now be asked to download two complementary apps. 

First is his model, to help public health workers track where Covid-19 patients have been. Second, the Apple-Google model to privately notify people who might have exposed themselves to the virus.

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