On Thursday Apple and Google released their COVID-19 contact tracing API to countries across the world, including Australia. The technology, known as a Exposure Notifications System, has been released to public health agencies (PHA) for their use is developing or improving their own contact tracing apps, such as COVIDSafe.
What is Google and Apple’s Exposure Notification System?
The Exposure Notification System that Google and Apple have developed allows a user on an compatible iPhone or Android device (it has to be running iOS 10/Android 6 or higher) to receive a notification if they have been exposed to someone who has tested positive or most likely has COVID-19. The API is said to utilise random bluetooth identifiers, meaning that no GPS or location data is used.
The Exposure Notification System was developed after 24 briefings and talks with app developers, scientists and public health officials and has been released to PHAs across 22 countries.
It’s really important to note that Apple and Google themselves have not and are not developing a contact tracing app. Their software is merely able to be used by PHAs for their own apps.
For example, a PHA will be able to define the exposure time and distance in regards to the notification system. Taking Australia as an example, if COVIDSafe integrated the Exposure Notification System in future updates the parameters for receiving an exposure notification would still be defined by the Australian government. At the present time it is if you’ve been within 1.5 metres of a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 for 15 minutes or longer.
Google and Apple Exposure Notification System Privacy Issues
One of the biggest concerns that Australians have had in regards to COVIDSafe has been privacy. In a tech briefing on Thursday both Google and Apple highlighted the importance of privacy while developing the API. A spokesperson for the company said that the following rules will be followed:
- Users need to choose to turn on exposure notifications and can switch them of at anytime
- Device location is not collected, including for those who test positive for COVID-19
- Other users, Google and Apple do not know the identity of users
- Exposure notification matching is done on device only and is controlled by the user
- Only official public health authorities are allowed to use the system
- The system will be disabled on a region by region basis once it is no longer necessary to be used
The COVIDSafe app has been out for nearly a month but Australian states and territories have scarcely used it for any of the crucial contact tracing data it provides.Read more
Google and Apple Exposure Notification System Rules
In addition to the privacy protections, there will be principles that PHA-developed apps will need to follow to use Google and Apple’s Exposure Notification System.
- Apps that use the API must be created for or by a PHA and can only be used for COVID-19 contact tracing
- Only apps with user consent will be allowed to use the API
- Apps must have user consent to share positive test results and the bluetooth ‘keys’ attached to their device with a PHA
- No targeted advertising and only minimal data can be collected for COVID-19 tracing only
- The API is restricted to one app per country. For Australia that is COVIDSafe
Exposure Notification System Tech Improvements
Battery drain due to the consistent use of bluetooth has been a primary concern for using contact tracing apps such as COVIDSafe. Google and Apple have said the use of their API can help to improve battery life as well as detection across iPhone and Android devices — another key issue that COVIDSafe has suffered over the past four weeks.
A Google and Apple spokesperson said that the API can help improve battery life as utilises bluetooth down to the bare minimum point where it will still work. The bluetooth packets sent out are called ‘connectionless packets’ which don’t require two phones to communicate in order to register a COVID-19 exposure.
Instead, a phone will just send out one single transmission and packet of data, which includes the encrypted metadata. Interestingly, this design is also linked to the protocol to have as minimum amount of data as possible being included and transmitted in order to maintain privacy.
A spokesperson from the companies also stated that the API could help different contact tracing apps and systems work across regional and state borders. This perhaps means that they are prepared for the possibility that these apps may still be necessary once travel restrictions across the world lift.
Google and Apple Exposure Notification System In Australia
Ever since the release of COVIDSafe the Australian government has said that it would work with Google and Apple to utilise their technology to improve the app. However, at the moment we don’t have any specifics on when this functionality might be rolled into COVIDSafe
“The DTA and the Department of Health have been working with Apple and Google to understand and test the Exposure Notification Framework since it was released to see how it can be applied in Australia. That testing is ongoing,” said a DTA spokesperson in an email to Gizmodo Australia.
While the latest Android and iOS 13.5 updates include support for the Exposure Notifications system, it won’t actually do anything until the functionality is integrated with COVIDSafe. We also don’t currently know how it will be integrated and how it will work in practicality.
If you’re in reading the joint statement from Google and Apple regarding the Exposure Notification System, we have it below:
One of the most effective techniques that public health officials have used during outbreaks is called contact tracing. Through this approach, public health officials contact, test, treat and advise people who may have been exposed to an affected person. One new element of contact tracing is Exposure Notifications: using privacy-preserving digital technology to tell someone they may have been exposed to the virus. Exposure Notification has the specific goal of rapid notification, which is especially important to slowing the spread of the disease with a virus that can be spread asymptomatically.
To help, Apple and Google cooperated to build Exposure Notifications technology that will enable apps created by public health agencies to work more accurately, reliably and effectively across both Android phones and iPhones. 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.
Starting today, our Exposure Notifications technology is available to public health agencies on both iOS and Android. What we’ve built is not an app — rather public health agencies will incorporate the API into their own apps that people install. Our technology is designed to make these apps work better. Each user gets to decide whether or not to opt-in to Exposure Notifications; the system does not collect or use location from the device; and if a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, it is up to them whether or not to report that in the public health app. 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.
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.