Apple and Google's COVID-19 contact tracing tech is ready

Twenty two countries have requested the API.

LeoPatrizi via Getty Images

Today, Apple and Google are releasing their COVID-19 contact tracing technology to public health agencies (PHAs) around the world. So far, 22 countries on five continents have requested the API, which will allow PHAs to develop their own contact tracing apps.

Apple and Google have been collaborating on the Exposure Notifications System API for several weeks. As planned, the API will use Bluetooth to exchange keys between phones. If a user tests positive for COVID-19, they can inform their contact tracing app, which will use the API to send exposure notifications to people they may have come in contact with. The API will not gather location data or be able to identify users.

Apple and Google are providing the API, but PHAs will have to develop their own contact tracing apps. In an attempt to promote adoption and avoid fragmentation, use of the API will be restricted to one app per country -- though there may be some exception if a country has opted for a state or regional approach. A handful of US states, including Alabama, North Dakota and South Carolina, plan to use the API for their own apps.

While 22 countries have requested the API, that doesn’t mean they will all put it to use. The UK said it won’t use the Apple-Google model, and countries like Australia have already rolled out their own solutions. Still, Apple and Google expect more countries to request the API in the coming weeks, and the World Health Organization (WHO) said it will release a contact tracing app for countries that don’t make their own. The WHO may use the Apple-Google tech.

On its end, Apple is adding exposure notification functionality to iOS 13.5, released today, so its devices should work with the API and iOS apps that use it. Google is rolling out a Play Services update today, so Android devices running 6.0 and above will be compatible.

As previously reported, PHAs that use the API must agree to only use the tech for COVID-19 contact tracing. Users must consent before the app uses the API and before they share a positive test result. Users can also turn exposure notifications on and off. Apps cannot request access to location data, and they are not permitted to use user data for things like targeted advertising.

The API will allow PHAs to define what constitutes an exposure event and determine transmission risk factors. For instance, a PHA may decide to send exposure notifications if you were exposed for several minutes (say, on public transit) but not if you were exposed for a few seconds (passing someone on the sidewalk).

Despite safeguards put in place to protect user privacy -- all metadata associated with Bluetooth will be encrypted -- the API and contact tracing apps will likely raise privacy concerns. And yet, to be truly effective, they will need widespread adoption.