In April, Apple and Google announced a rare act of tech giant fraternalism spurred by a global pandemic. Their plan tapped the short-range Bluetooth signals from smartphones. Phones would keep track—anonymously—of other phones they were near. When the owner of one of those phones was diagnosed with Covid-19, alerts would be sent to others who had recently been nearby. The idea was to help public health officials more quickly track down potentially exposed people and stem the spread of the virus.
In the United States, at least, it was also an experiment in federalism. Apple and Google provided the technical framework, which they term “exposure notification,” and guidance for how to use it. But it was up to states to build apps that use the tool and integrate them into their public health response.
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That was then and this is now. Like much of the nation’s patchwork pandemic response, leaving states to sort things out individually hasn’t worked very well. Nearly five months since the initial announcement, only six US states have launched apps using the Apple-Google scheme. Discussions about creating contact tracing apps have become mired in battles about privacy and influence of big tech firms, and uncertainty about how much digital contact tracing would help the overall response to the pandemic. That’s especially the case when so many critical elements—testing, resources for the infected, manual contact tracing—remain in disarray. So on Tuesday, Google and Apple said they would take things a bit more into their own hands.
Now, the tech giants will also provide the technology for sending and receiving alerts, no outside app required. The companies term it Exposure Notification Express. For Apple, the feature will be available starting Tuesday within iOS 13.7, the newest version of Apple’s operating system. For Android, Google will create apps for states that it says will be available later this month. (Google’s decision reflects complexities of the Android ecosystem that make it harder to quickly push new features to users.) Apple and Google say their commitment to user privacy remains: They won’t collect any identifying data, instead relying on anonymous identifiers to keep track of which phones are near each other. And although the feature is baked into the operating system, iPhone users in states where it is made available will be required to opt in.
Apple and Google say the change was based on conversations with state public health authorities, who told the companies they were having difficulty building apps themselves. States will need to opt into the new system by sending the companies basic information, like how to get tested if someone receives an alert and how to reach the local public health authority after a positive test. So far, three states and the District of Columbia have signed on to use the new system—including two, Virginia and Nevada, that had already released custom apps. (The third state is Maryland.) Apple and Google say they are “committed to supporting public health authorities that have deployed or are building custom apps.”
The new plan unifies some of the behind-the-scenes work of sending exposure notifications. In the original scheme, state health authorities were responsible for setting up servers to send exposure alerts to people who had been near others who had tested positive for Covid-19. Different states, different servers. That meant apps in different states couldn’t easily talk to each other. Now that will be handled by a central server, operated by the Association of Public Health Laboratories. Some existing apps using the Apple-Google system, including those recently released in Wyoming and North Dakota, are already designed to communicate with the association’s server—and thus with other apps.
The move wasn’t entirely unexpected. When Apple and Google announced their digital tracing plans, they told WIRED they planned to issue an update in June that would incorporate elements of the system into their phone operating systems. So long as people opted in to having the feature turned on, the phones would keep an anonymous tally of their nearby contacts. But in order to receive an exposure notification, or send word of a positive test, people would need to download one of the state-developed apps.
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Now, Apple and Google are getting a bit more involved. Which makes sense, given the chaotic state-by-state rollout. “I think it’s great,” says Harper Reed, a consultant and former CTO of Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign who codeveloped a privacy framework for exposure notification. He says the fact that only a few states have apps so far, some of which are incompatible, is a disaster. A common interface and technology across phones might both make it simpler for states to roll out apps and encourage more people to turn the feature on. Reed says smartphone contact tracing seems to be working in other countries where it is available nationwide—and when there’s a robust infrastructure for testing and contact tracing. “I think these apps really work in the proper environment, and that’s amazing,” he says.
Digital contact tracing has rolled out a bit more smoothly in countries where the public health response is less fragmented. In places like Ireland and Switzerland, apps have been available for months, and they benefit from consistent messaging from the national government about the benefits of using them.
But some people worry that because states and countries will be less likely to build their own apps than use the default Apple and Google options, public health officials in those places may learn less about the spread of the disease, which could complicate their responses. They may also have less control over what features are included in the apps. “It may force countries to move in directions that are not the best for their health system and their citizens,” says Carmela Troncoso, a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology who led the development of Switzerland’s app.
In any case, it’s still far from clear how much digital contact tracing will move the needle on the US pandemic response. The first hurdle after launching state apps is to get people to opt in so that the apps are effective, something the new plan may help with. But as Apple and Google have said from the beginning, digital contact tracing is a supplement to the public health response—a way to expand the reach of contact tracing beyond known contacts to include strangers nearby on a train, or in a crowd, or on a chairlift. To be truly effective, the rest of the public health response—the testing, the tracing, the support for those in quarantine—needs to work. And on that front, the United States still has a long way to go.
Will Knight contributed reporting.
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