Google-Apple contact-tracing API updated with new dev tools, cross-country interoperability and location data clarifications

Exposure Notification tools are supporting apps live in 16 countries and are also being explored by 20 U.S. states and territories, Google announced.
By Dave Muoio
04:38 pm
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Google has posted an update on Exposure Notifications – their system-level framework for COVID-19 contact tracing developed in tandem with Apple – revealing that the tools have been incorporated into digital contact-tracing apps launched in 16 countries.

Further, 20 U.S. states and territories are "exploring apps" based on the system, according to Google, the first set of which are expected to go live "over the coming weeks."

The adoption milestones came alongside a breakdown from Google on recent updates to the Exposure Notifications API.

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Per Google, public health authorities using the system will now have a better idea whether a specific exposure is high or low risk, and have access to debug tools and other improvements to assist with the development of new apps. The Exposure Notification API is now interoperable between different countries using the system, and devices themselves are better at spotting another nearby Bluetooth device, according to the company.

"We’ve continued to improve the technology and provide more transparency based on feedback we’ve received from public health authorities and other experts," Dave Burke, VP of engineering at Google, wrote in a blog post. "Public health authorities will continue to make their own decisions about how exposure notifications become part of their plans in controlling COVID-19, and we will work to improve the technology in response to their feedback. "

Today's post also came with a direct response to recent reports on Exposure Notification apps requiring Android users to enable their location settings.

The explanation again stressed that the setting does not necessarily enable access to a device's location, but is required for Bluetooth communications between different devices. Still, Google committed to divorcing these functions in the upcoming Android 11 release with a setting that allows Bluetooth scanning for Exposure Notifications apps specifically.

WHAT'S THE IMPACT?

While the info on country and state implementations provides an up-to-date look at roughly how many people have (or, in the case of the U.S., could have) access to these contact-tracing tools, several of the updates are a clear answer to some of the complaints public health groups have been voicing about the tech giants' system.

Some updates, like the cross-border interoperability, could have a direct impact on the effectiveness of these tools in Europe or other regions with frequent international travel, while the delineation of location tracking and Bluetooth communications may win over users and experts concerned about potential privacy breaches.

THE LARGER TREND

Google and Apple's system-level tools were announced to much fanfare in early April and went live in mid-May operating system updates. But several public health bodies had mixed opinions of the tools, and some countries were fairly vocal about why they would be developing their own approach in-house.

One such case was the U.K., which said in late April that it would opt for a more centralized digital contact-tracing system. Two months later, the country's public health organization had revised its stance and begun work on an Apple-Google-based tool.

But all of this isn't to say that homegrown COVID-19 contact-tracing apps haven't seen their own challenges as well.

Norway's contact-tracing app, for instance, was temporarily banned due to privacy concerns from the Norwegian Data Protection Authority. South Korea's quarantine-enforcement app was also plagued with security flaws that allowed access to names, real-time locations and other personal information.

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