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Apple adds built-in COVID-19 Exposure Notifications to iOS 13.7


Apple has announced that it will release iOS 13.7 to the public today, including a major expansion of the COVID-19 Exposure Notification platform. Apple and Google have unveiled a new Exposure Notifications Express system that allows public health authorities to support COVID-19 contact tracing without developing and maintaining their own application.

The backstory

When Apple and Google announced their work together on the COVID-19 Exposure Notification API at the onset of the pandemic, the companies detailed two phases of the technology. The first phase, which is what came with iOS 13.5, required that users first download an app from their public health authority to opt-in to Exposure Notifications.

At the time, Apple and Google also hinted at work on phase two, which would reduce the reliance on public health authorities and implement much of the COVID-19 Exposure Notification technology directly into iOS and Android. That is what Google and Apple are announcing today, but with a few changes compared to what was initially expected.

iOS 13.7 + Exposure Notifications Express

The basis of the new Exposure Notifications Express system is included in iOS 13.7, which Apple is releasing to all iPhone owners today. Public health authorities still have to opt-in to the system.

For public health authorities, the process of adopting Exposure Notifications Express is significantly streamlined compared to adopting the Exposure Notification API. Public health authorities simply fill out a config file that includes their name, logo, criteria for triggering an exposure notification, and information and protocol that is displayed to users following an exposure.

Apple and Google are shouldering much more of the responsibility of the COVID-19 Exposure Notifications Express system. The companies say that they will use the information provided by the public health authorities to offer a fully operational Exposure Notification Systems on behalf of the public health authority directly integrated into iOS 13.7.

Public health authorities still have full control over the system, though, despite not needing to develop their own application. This includes controlling how the notifications are triggered, what next steps are to advise, and guidance for exposed individuals.

iOS 13.7 changes

For users, you can now enable COVID-19 Exposure Notifications directly in the Settings app on their iPhone. The process is as simple as just a few taps, including agreeing to the public health agency terms. Users will also be able to opt-in to receive a push notification when their local public health authority adopts Exposure Notifications Express.

Once you enable exposure notifications in the Settings app, your iPhone will monitor begin using Bluetooth to log possible exposures so you can be notified of a potential COVID-19 exposure based on the guidelines set by your local public health authority.

Apple and Google hope that this expansion of the Exposure Notifications Express system will dramatically increase adoption, both from users and public health authorities. The first public health authorities in the United States to adopt the Exposure Notification Express system will be Maryland, Nevada, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

For states that already have a standalone application using the COVID-19 Exposure Notification API, those apps can still exist and operate on their own. As of right now, Apple and Google say that 25 states and territories, representing more than 55% of the population, are exploring Exposure Notifications System solutions.

Apple and Google had the following to say in a statement to 9to5Mac:

“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. 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.”

Finally, Apple and Google emphasize that all of the original privacy protections of the Exposure Notification API also extend to the Exposure Notifications Express. Users must explicitly enable exposure notifications, nothing is enabled by default. No location data is shared and the system does not share your identity with other users, Apple, or Google. All matching is done on-device and users have full control over whether they want to report a positive test.

iOS 13.7 will roll out to all iPhone users later today.

9to5Mac’s take

In some ways, today’s announcements from Apple and Google do appear to be an expansion on what the two companies had initially anticipated for phase two of the Exposure Notifications System. The companies had initially said phase 2 would still include some reliance on public health authority applications, but today’s announcement means that Apple and Google will operate the fully functional system on behalf of the public health authorities.

Judy Monroe, MD, President and CEO, CDC Foundation:

“In this pandemic, jurisdictions need bandwidth to help develop tools for contact tracing and exposure notification. Tools like the Apple | Google notification framework offer a backbone for building privacy-centered apps for rapid exchange of data that can help protect and save lives.”

It’s notable that Apple and Google have focused on reducing the barrier of adoption for users and public health authorities alike. COVID-19 contact tracing and exposure tracking work only with high rates of adoption, and today’s announcements seem aimed precisely at helping increase adoption.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan praised the partnership between Apple and Google:

“Exposure Notifications Express will help to save lives, greatly enhance our contact tracing operation, and advance our statewide COVID-19 recovery. We appreciate our collaboration with Apple and Google, and look forward to launching this state-of-the-art technology in Maryland.”

What do you think of today’s COVID-19 Exposure Notifications Express announcement from Apple and Google? Let us know down in the comments.

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