Apple and Google will automatically send notifications to some user’s phones if they have come into contact with a person infected with the coronavirus.
The system is an expanded version of the Apple and Google partnership which led to a specialised coronavirus tracking app framework, launched in May.
The update will not require health authorities to build their own app, and it is hoped this simplified version will encourage uptake of track and trace protocols.
Users will need to authorise the system on their phone as it will be ‘off’ by default and can be flicked on or off at the user’s discretion.
But for those who do activate the system, it will allow iOS and Android phones to communicate via anonymous Bluetooth signals to determine who may be infected.
A person can also use the notification system to input their positive COVID-19 diagnosis, if they wish.
This will then trigger the notifications which will be sent out to people who that individual may have infected.
Public Health Authorities will have to authorise the system before it goes live in a specific region, and the tech giants say it is designed to work in conjunction with, not replace, existing track and trace Apps.
Scroll down for video
The update will not require health authorities to build their own app, and it is hoped this simplified version will encourage uptake of track and trace protocols. Users will need to authorise the system on their phone as it will be ‘off’ by default and can be flicked on or off at the user’s discretion
The notifications will only be sent out to users in areas where the local public health authority has launched the system, called Exposure Notifications Express.
Currently, that is Maryland, Nevada, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. It is not yet live in the UK or internationally and there is no known timescale for a wider rollout.
Apple and Google have taken it upon themselves to provide their technical expertise for free in the fight against the coronavirus.
Combined the behemoths, which both have been embroiled recently in antitrust litigation, have a net worth of almost $3.5 trillion.
The GDP of the United Kingdom, the fifth highest in the world, is only $2.8 trillion.
The two companies have made the adjustment to its Covid-tracking software to allow for greater uptake of track and trace procedures, which health experts believe is a key tool in the fight against the virus.
A landmark study recently reviewed 15 scientific papers and found that even under optimistic assumptions – where up to 80 per cent of people are using a contract tracing app with 90 per cent of the identified contacts following quarantine advice – physically distancing and venue closures would still be required.
However, Professor Cristophe Fraser from Oxford University believes the apps and automated track and trace systems, as well as manual contact tracing, could play a critical role in defeating the pandemic
‘We’ve been exploring different app uptake levels for some time in the UK, and we’re really pleased to see that contact tracing apps in the UK and the USA have the potential to meaningfully reduce the number of cases, hospitalisations and deaths at all levels of app uptake across the population,’ he says.
‘For example, we estimate that a well-staffed manual contact tracing workforce combined with 15 per cent uptake could reduce infections by 15 per cent and deaths by 11 per cent.’
Where is the system live?
Maryland, Nevada, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. will be the first Public Health Authorities (PHAs) s in the US to deploy Exposure Notifications Express.
Residents in other states may receive notifications informing them of availability later this fall as other states choose to enable Exposure Notifications Express.
The feature is currently not being rolled out in the UK or outside of the US.
Apple and Google’s API is the bare bones of a track and trace app and requires health authorities to use it and build their own app from it.
Although it was provided for free, many places had issues creating their own customised app and many have been beleaguered by delays.
It is hoped this new feature will be less technologically prohibitive and allow for wider uptake, Apple and Google said.
Instead of building an entire app, the new notification system only requires public health officials to submit a small configuration file to Apple and Google in order for it to work.
This will ensure all the information a user receives is from healthcare officials and not the tech companies.
It will include links to websites for official information, the name and logo of the health organisation and the words a user will see.
Apple and Google said in a joint statement: ‘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.’
How will the system work?
After upgrading to iOS 13.7, users in states using Exposure Notifications Express (ENS) will be shown a notification informing them that exposure notifications are now available in their state.
Users can tap on the notification to bring up a portal which discusses consent.
Here they will be able to activate, or deny, the feature.
For iOS, this can be done without the need to download an app.
For Android users, the notification will ask them to download a generic auto-generated app with branding from the user’s local Public Health Authority.
For those who reject the permissions, they will not hear or see a single other notification.
For those that accept the system, their phone will go about interacting with nearby devices using Bluetooth.
Data is anonymous and decentralised, meaning no personal data is shared with the Public Health Authority, Google or Apple.
If a person receives a notification saying they may have been infected, the branding and information comes directly from the PHA, not Google or Apple.
The PHA is also responsible for setting the parameters for what it considers to be an infection event. For example, how close and how for how long two people need to be in order to warrant a notification cautioning of infection risk.
The PHA is also responsible for providing information on the next steps, such as quarantine and testing protocols.
A user is also able to input their own positive diagnosis, but they do not have to, if they do not wish.
Apple users in the areas where the system is live who upgrade today to iOS 13.7 will get the notification.
Android is planning to deploy the system later this month to all users with Android 6.0 or higher.
Users outside these areas who upgrade to the new operating system will not get any notifications.
They will only be sent out if their local public health body decides to utilise the Apple and Google system.
Apple users will be prompted to click on the notification and from there can either approve or refuse the system without the need to download an app.
On Android devices, users will also get a prompt from the phone’s operating system, but will still have to download an automatically generated app.
Dr Judy Monroe, President and CEO of CDC Foundation, said: ‘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.’
Larry Hogan, Governor of Maryland, said: ‘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.’
Some countries have used the Apple/Google API while others, like Canada, have opted to build their own from scratch.
Matt Hancock had initially promised the NHS would build its own app which would work alongside human contact tracers.
It was based on a centralised model which funnelled all the data from handsets to a central server in NHS headquarters.
This was in direct contradiction to the approach taken by Apple and Google, who teamed up in a rare partnership to create a framework which countries could use to build their own app.
The two tech behemoths focused on a decentralised approach where there was no data being shared between devices and servers, helping to preserve privacy of users.
Also, the two companies are responsible for by far and away the two most popular mobile operating systems in the guise of iOS and Android.
Being aware of all the security features and protocols that may make interaction between the different phones, they were able to devise a system that worked.
NHS however, announced in April it would press on regardless of these inevitable issues and failed spectacularly.
This was because the Bluetooth system developed by the NHS effectively went into ‘sleep mode’ when the phone screens were locked and developers couldn’t fix the glitch. The app was abandoned a month after launch.
In that time, Google and Apple released their software for free and it was picked up by 22 countries on the day it was released, on May 20.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, trials revealed the Apple and Google technology can spot 99 per cent of close contacts using any type of smartphone — but it cannot currently tell how far away they are, officials claim.
It took the UK until June 18 to admit this publicly and switch to the Google-Apple model.
Officials refused to reveal how much money has been spent on the now-scrapped app.
HOW IS APPLE AND GOOGLE’S TECHNOLOGY DIFFERENT TO THE FAILED NHS PROJECT?
It is not clear why the NHS app was so much worse at using Bluetooth to detect other phones than the Apple/Google technology is.
Officials have not explained exactly why or how the new system is better at measuring the distance between two phones, but Apple and Google’s own software appears to work significantly better when the phone’s screen is locked.
The companies make the phone operating systems themselves so are better able to fit the Bluetooth software around that, whereas the NHS was unable to make a program that could prevent the app going into sleep mode.
The main difference between the two apps is the way they store data.
Both keep a log of who someone has come into close contact with – but the NHS’s app would have kept information in a centralised database, while the Google/Apple app is de-centralised.
NHS app: Lists on NHS servers
The NHSX app would create an alert every time two app users came within Bluetooth range of one another and log this in the user’s phone.
Each person would essentially build up a list of everyone they have been in ‘contact’ with. This would be anonymised so the lists were actually just be numbers or codes, not lists of names or addresses.
If someone was diagnosed with the coronavirus all the app users they got close to during the time that they were considered infectious would receive an alert telling them they have been put at risk of COVID-19 – but it wouldn’t name the person who was diagnosed.
NHSX insisted it would have deleted people’s data when they get rid of the app, but not data uploaded to the NHS server if they or a contact tested positive.
Apple/Google: Contained on phones
In Apple and Google’s de-centralised approach, meanwhile, the server and list element of this process is removed and the entire log is contained in someone’s phone.
That app works by exchanging a digital ‘token’ with every phone someone comes within Bluetooth range of over a fixed period.
If one person develops symptoms of the coronavirus or tests positive, they will be able to enter this information into the app.
The phone will then send out a notification to all the devices they have exchanged tokens with during the infection window, to make people aware they may have been exposed to COVID-19.
The server database will not be necessary because each phone will keep an individual log of the bluetooth profiles someone has come close to. These will then be linked anonymously to people’s NHS apps and alerts can be pushed through that even after the person is out of bluetooth range.
People can delete their data from this app at any time.