Apple and Google integrating COVID-19 contact-tracing into OS

Android and iOS operating systems are set to have a Covid-19 notification system built-in.

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Apple and Google are updating their COVID-19 contact-tracing tool to make it possible to notify users of potential exposures to the novel coronavirus without a dedicated exposure app.

Apple and Google have been working together on a COVID-19 contact tracing system with the hope of wide-scale adoption across the world. Previously, users had to download a dedicated app from their local public health organisation in order for it to work, but now, both companies are integrating the technology more directly into their operating systems.

In Apple’s case, this is happening with iOS 13.7, and Google Android users will gain the same update later this month in devices running Android 6.0 and above.

For Apple users, the new Exposure Notifications Express spec is baked into iOS 13.7, This app-less functionality is called Exposure Notifications Express and is only available when a Public Health Authority (PHA) supports it.

Those who choose to participate agree to have their device use Bluetooth to search for other nearby opted-in devices, with an exchange of anonymised identifiers used to track encounters. If a user tests positive, and agrees to notify authorities, other users will be told that they are at risk and should act accordingly.

“As the next step in our work with public health authorities on Exposure Notifications, we are making it easier and faster for them to use the Exposure Notifications System without the need for them to build and maintain an app,” Apple and Google said in statement.

“Exposure notifications express provides another option for public health authorities to supplement their existing contact tracing operations with technology without compromising on the project’s core tenets of user privacy and security.

“Existing apps using the exposure notification API will be compatible with exposure notifications express, and we are committed to supporting public health authorities that have deployed or are building custom apps.”

The update is designed to let health authorities use Bluetooth-powered contact-tracing without having to build their own apps. It’s still non-trivial to play, as the system requires one server to verify test results and another to run both contact-tracing apps and the app-free service.

Under the new Exposure Notification Express system, the underlying technology remains much the same, but contact tracing should be much easier to adopt for public health authorities, because it saves them a lot of the legwork of having to build, test, launch and maintain their own app.

Apple and Google, and health officials across the word, will be hoping this makes contact tracing easier to adopt, more widespread in its use and therefore more effective in the fight against Covid-19.

Current contact tracing apps are not impacted by this new framework, and public health authorities can still build their own apps in the future.

Despite this latest announcement, Professor Cristophe Fraser, of Department of Health at Oxford University, has said he believed apps still have a role to play in stopping the spread of coronavirus.

“We’ve been exploring different app uptake levels for some time in the UK, and we’re really pleased to see that contact tracing apps in the UK and the USA have the potential to meaningfully reduce the number of cases, hospitalisations and deaths at all levels of app uptake across the population,” he said.

“For example, we estimate that a well-staffed manual contact tracing workforce combined with 15% uptake could reduce infections by 15% and deaths by 11%.”

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