On Wednesday, Apple and Google rolled out support for their coronavirus exposure notification system, as implemented in an update to iOS and Android. First announced on April 10th, the system uses a complex BLE Beacon protocol to allow users to track recent exposures to other users who have tested positive for COVID-19. The companies have pledged not to collect data from the framework or otherwise monetize it, and they intend to shut the system down once the public health crisis has passed.
The companies plan to eventually build the system directly into Android and iOS, but that’s still months away. Today’s update simply opens the door for public health apps to use the framework and the enhanced Bluetooth access that it enables.
So far, there are no available apps making use of the framework, but three US states have come forward to announce projects that are in development. Alabama is developing an app in connection with a team from the University of Alabama, while the Medical University of South Carolina is heading up a similar project in collaboration with the state’s health agency.
Most notably, North Dakota is planning to incorporate the system into its Care19 app, which drew significant criticism from users in its early versions.
“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,” North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said in a statement, “which are critical to getting communities and economies back up and running.”
The two companies say 22 countries have separately received access to the API, although it declined to name specific nations. The protocol is designed to allow signals to interoperate between apps, although details on the specific apps are still scant. More collaborations are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
Project leaders have made a number of new tweaks as a result of those ongoing conversations. Based on recent changes, the API will now allow participating apps to factor transmission risk into their definition of an exposure event and privately communicate information about how many exposure events a given user has had.
In a statement, the companies emphasized that they were leaving software development to public health agencies and hoped primarily to enable those efforts rather than lead them. “What we’ve built is not an app — rather public health agencies will incorporate the API into their own apps that people install,” company representatives said. “User adoption is key to success and we believe that these strong privacy protections are also the best way to encourage use of these apps.”