Roughly a month after first announcing their unprecedented collaboration, Apple and Google have updated their devices' operating systems today with the first component of their contact tracing API.
Referred to by the companies as "Exposure Notifications," the technology aims to help public health agencies deploy apps that tell individuals when they may have been exposed to another person with COVID-19.
Device owners must opt in to enable the functionality, which according to the companies does not collect location data. The tech companies also noted in their joint announcement that individual users ultimately decide whether or not to report their positive COVID-19 diagnosis through the public health agency's app.
"Over the last several weeks, our two companies have worked together, reaching out to public health officials, scientists, privacy groups and government leaders all over the world to get their input and guidance," the companies wrote in the statement. "Today, this technology is in the hands of public health agencies across the world who will take the lead and we will continue to support their efforts."
WHY IT MATTERS
Contact tracing is a key component of outbreak mitigation that allows public health officials to more quickly identify potential new cases. However, traditional contact tracing is a labor-intensive process where public health groups interview confirmed cases to identify any other individuals they might have infected.
This opens the doors for an automated approach to the practice – one that bakes these capabilities into the operating systems of the two biggest smartphone platforms and immediately places these tools into the hands of as many people as possible.
But the past few weeks have seen a handful of concerns voiced from security specialists, public health figures and certain governments, such as the potential of a self-reporting system to yield false positives. While the Bluetooth-based system described by the companies in draft documentation places a key focus on data security and cryptography, big tech's less-than-stellar track record when it comes to privacy has many consumers wary of the technology.
THE LARGER TREND
So far, the most notable holdout among government groups has been the U.K.'s NHSX. The digital health service said that a more centralized system than Apple and Google are offering would allow for more rapid adaptation as additional coronavirus data is collected.
Bluetooth-based contact tracing has also been proposed by researchers who, like tech companies, stressed the privacy benefits a non-GPS approach has to offer. On the other hand, a recent review from the Ada Lovelace Institute warned that "the significant technical limitations, and deep social risks, of digital contact tracing outweigh the value offered to the crisis response."