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Apple, Google release template for COVID-19 contact tracing apps

Apps for iPhones, Android devices would let public health authorities to trace infections among voluntary users

IPhones and Android smartphones could help in contract tracing the COVID-19 virus. In this photo illustration, Florida's COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard is seen displayed on a smartphone.
IPhones and Android smartphones could help in contract tracing the COVID-19 virus. In this photo illustration, Florida's COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard is seen displayed on a smartphone. (SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Apple and Google on Wednesday released the first phase of a template that would allow software developers to build apps to assist public health authorities in tracking the spread of COVID-19.

Apple and Google executives told reporters that they had refined several features of the template after extensive consultations with public health authorities, privacy advocates, academics and government agencies from around the world. More refinements could be added in later phases through updates, they said.

The Bluetooth-based design would depend not only on voluntary download of the apps by users around the world but also require express consent from users to report a positive diagnosis for COVID-19 through the app. The design also would only allow those apps that have been built by or on behalf of public health authorities, the companies said.

The template, called Exposure Notification API, is being rolled out to iPhone and Android users in the form of a software update, both companies said.

Several U.S. states and as many as 22 countries across five continents have expressed interest in using the technology to conduct contact tracing, Apple and Google executives told reporters on a conference call on the condition that they not be named. The executives also declined to name the states or countries that have expressed interest in the technology.  

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And unlike earlier designs, the application programming interface — the template — would not require information to be stored in a central database but instead would allow users to see on their own smartphones if they have been exposed to someone with the illness, company executives said. The template will prohibit developers from using a device’s GPS to track users’ location and will not broadcast any aspect of a user’s identity to anyone else, the companies said.

The information would be used only by public health authorities and neither company will collect any personal user data nor monetize them, the companies said. The Bluetooth keys will be generated randomly and metadata traveling between devices will be encrypted, the companies said.

The unique Apple-Google collaboration was launched five weeks ago to ensure that the apps on iPhones and Android devices can send and receive Bluetooth signals from each other, the executives said. The companies engineered the design so as to ensure that Bluetooth signals can be sent and received even when a user’s phone is in sleep mode, and that such signal transmission would not drain devices’ batteries, the companies said.

Launched just five weeks ago

Contact tracing is becoming a key feature of managing the spread of the pandemic as states and countries across the world reopen their economies after more than two months of shutting down almost all economic activity. The goal of contact tracing is to have public health authorities track down anyone testing positive for the disease and figure out who they may have come into contact with during the previous two weeks and alerting those people to seek medical attention and isolate themselves.

The design template would allow public health authorities to define parameters as they see fit, including specifying what constitutes exposure to an infected person, figuring out how many exposures an individual might have had, and assessing the transmission risk on a case-by-case basis.

Although the design would not permit GPS tracking of individual phones, it allows public health agencies to ask for a zipcode or other geographic information from users to understand if a new COVID-19 cluster is beginning to form, the companies said.

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North and South Dakota, as well as Utah already are using GPS-based tracking apps for contact tracing.

The North Dakota app, called Care 19 , which uses GPS tracking, will be supplemented with a new app labeled CARE 19 Exposure that’s built on the Apple and Google template released Wednesday, the state’s governor, Doug Burgum said in a statement provided by Apple and Google.

“The CARE19 Exposure app will help us improve contact tracing and continue our ND Smart Restart by notifying people who may have been exposed to COVID-19, reaching the greatest number of people in a way that protects their privacy,” Burgum said in the statement. “As we respond to this unprecedented public health emergency, we invite other states to join us in leveraging smartphone technologies to strengthen existing contact tracing efforts, which are critical to getting communities and economies back up and running.”

Apple and Google said that while each state may have apps that are slightly different from each other, the design template would allow devices to communicate with each other.

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