Apple, Google Launch COVID-19 Contact Tracing API

Ruben Fields
May 23, 2020

News reports that tech giants Apple and Google released smartphone technology on Wednesday to notify users that they may have been in contact with individuals who have been exposed to the Wuhan coronavirus.

The "Exposure API" however, could emerge as a system-level feature in Google and Apple smartphones according to the tech giants' announced plans. They often use Global Positioning System to track people's location, which Apple and Google are banning from their new tool because of privacy and accuracy concerns.

What's more pressing is whether a critical mass of people will actually use the health authority apps to make a difference in the fight against the virus. Their software is merely able to be used by PHAs for their own apps. When a person reports being infected on the app, an alert is sent automatically to those who might have had contact with the carrier.

Critics are concerned that it will undermine civil liberties and privacy. Apple and Google hope that more countries will join soon.

While use of the app is voluntary, it is estimated that it will initially be used by at least one fifth of the population.

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Google and Apple have built the API to maintain user privacy. However, a recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found that almost 60% of Americans would not be willing to download a contact tracing app. To date, Apple and Google had only released beta versions to help with the development process. But they claimed their automated "exposure notification" system can enhance that procedure and reduce the spread of Covid-19 by infection providers that are engaging with complete strangers and aren't yet revealing signs. 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. 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 are expecting more requests in the coming weeks. "That testing is ongoing", said a DTA spokesperson in an email tp Gizmodo Australia.

Apart from this, the app could also be tricked into allowing access to internal files on the user's phone. Exposure Notification has the specific goal of rapid notification, which is especially important to slowing the spread of a virus can be spread asymptomatically.

Just over a month after they started working on it, Apple and Google have made their COVID-fighting framework available to public health authorities.

The COVID-19 Exposure Notification API went live yesterday and it is available for public health authorities worldwide. This is not a standalone app, but an API to help build national apps. Here in the United Kingdom, for example, officials reportedly clashed with the company's choice to make any data collected via app decentralised by default: a choice that preserves user-privacy but also makes it more hard to track the virus's spread over time.

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