Last month, Google and Apple announced that they’re integrating contact tracing capabilities into their respective mobile operating systems. Android and iOS are today gaining exposure notifications, and health agencies can start releasing apps to help combat the spread of COVID-19.

What are exposure notifications?

Historically, contact tracing has required health officials to physically ask an infected person for a list of everyone they’ve been in contact with as a means to contact those people, and encourage them to look out for symptoms, get tested, or self-isolate as necessary.

Apple and Google want to provide a digital equivalent with exposure notifications to give governments another tool to combat the coronavirus and help safely reopen society. For example, some states in the US are hiring thousands of people to contact trace manually.

When two people are in close-range, their phones will exchange and record anonymous Bluetooth identifiers. If an individual gets diagnosed with COVID-19 — as confirmed by a health provider, they can have their device transmit a list of everybody they’ve been in contact with to the cloud.

Reporting positive COVID-19 test in example health app

The other person’s device will periodically download a list of everyone that has tested positive in their area. If a match occurs, they will be notified and prompted to contact health authorities.

Notification when possibly exposed

How it works?

In terms of privacy, no GPS or any other location data is being recorded when the anonymous, randomly generated identifiers are exchanged. Governments or the two companies do not know where you’ve been. Additionally, when people get alerts that they’ve possibly been exposed to COVID-19, they will not be made aware of who reported it.

With today’s launch, users will have to download an app from a local health agency to get started. They will then be prompted to enable exposure notifications with the ability to disable at any time. Matching occurs entirely on-device, with Google and Apple planning to shut down the system on a regional basis when it’s no longer needed.

Exposure notifications are available on Android 6.0+ Marshmallow and later. The capability is powered by Google Play Services — which is installed on Android devices running Google apps — and the necessary update will be rolled out within a week. From your phone’s settings app, visit the “Google” menu to control.

Exposure notification settings on Android

What’s next?

The exposure notifications API is officially being made available to all qualified public health agencies today, and rolling out to Android and iOS. Google/Apple note that a number of US states already have access, along with 22 countries across five continents.

It’s now up to governments or regional/state jurisdictions to release an application. Several restrictions are in place, with these apps not allowed to collect location data or be used for targeted advertising. Data collection has to be kept to a minimum, while agencies can set what constitutes an exposure event. End-users have to explicitly opt-in to Exposure Notifications and explicitly share any positive results.

Later this year, “Phase 2” will not require an app to be installed to start getting alerts as the Exposure Notifications will be more closely integrated with Android and iOS.

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