Apple and Google are moving ahead with the next stage of their contact tracing technology by integrating it more directly into their mobile operating systems, a step the companies say should help promote adoption of the notification tool.
With the new system, iPhone users will no longer need to download a separate public health app in order to opt into the contact tracing feature, while Android users will be prompted to download an app that Google will create on behalf of public health officials.
That means health agencies will no longer need to build a contact tracing app of their own in order to take advantage of the technology, though they will still be able to offer one if they choose.
Public health officials in Maryland, Nevada, Virginia and Washington, DC will be the first to use the more streamlined version of Exposure Notification, known as Exposure Notification Express, Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) said Tuesday.
The existing app-based version of the technology is already in use in Alabama, Arizona, North Dakota, Nevada, Wyoming and Virginia, as well as 20 countries and regions around the world, the companies added.
Those that have yet to adopt the system have cited a lack of engineering manpower needed to build a dedicated app, the companies told reporters Tuesday, highlighting how a simpler process could accelerate the tool’s spread.
“We are making it easier and faster for [public health officials] to use the Exposure Notifications System without the need for them to build and maintain an app,” the companies said in a statement.
Apple will release the new tracing system in iOS 13.7 on Tuesday, and Google will offer it beginning later this month on devices running Android 6.0, the companies said.
The underlying technology will remain much the same.
Based on Bluetooth wireless communications, the tech giants’ contact tracing tool records when two or more smartphones come within a certain distance of each other. If a person participating in the program later reports a positive Covid-19 test result, notifications are sent to all the devices that came near that person’s device, indicating their owners may have been exposed.
The companies have said users can choose to opt in or out of the tracing program at will, and that users can choose themselves whether to report a positive coronavirus test on the system. In addition, they say, the program does not share location data with the companies or with public health agencies. And it does not share users’ identifying information with the companies or other users, either.
Under the program, health officials in each state have been able to define for themselves how close two devices must be, and for how long, in order for their apps to record a contact. The upgraded system calls for the public health officials to submit those same parameters to Apple and Google directly, which will then build them into the system.
In Google’s case, the company will automatically generate an Exposure Notification app based on the information provided by public health agencies and prompt users in various states to download it.
Apple and Google claimed Tuesday that their Exposure Notification system has already helped pinpoint some cases of Covid-19 infections, including some that they claim would not have been detected using traditional contact tracing methods.
The companies declined to say precisely how many infections have been identified so far, but added that hundreds of coronavirus tests per week are currently being uploaded to the system.