Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Update on COVID-19 Contact Tracing App from Google and Apple

A few months ago, we discussed about the revolutionary partnership between Google and Apple. Both of the rival tech giants signed up to make an app to make COVID-19 contact tracing a more effective and efficient process. 

Contact tracing apps are not new as a concept, but they tend to have very low download rates. Take, for example, the state of Virginia, whose contact tracing app launched earlier this year was downloaded by a grand total of 11% of the state’s population. Google and Apple’s partnership solves this problem as both are heavily used in the US (and worldwide), and the app will be downloaded with a simple system update.

After a period of over 8 months (the original announcement was made in April 2020), the app’s much-hyped launch in California is finally happening. Officially called ‘CA Notify’ the app uses the contact tracing API added to both Android and iOS platforms in May. In can run on Android 6.0 phones and above, and iOS 14.2 and above, along with Bluetooth Low Energy. 


Basically, the app takes Bluetooth signals and uses them to send and receiving anonymous “keys” between mobile phones that are within Bluetooth range of each other. That way, when someone has been Covid-19, all the need to do is enter their test result into the app. Those phones that exchanged “keys” within 6 feet (or 2 meters) of the patient’s phone will automatically be alerted.

Those fretting over privacy concerns can rest easy too. Not only is the app fully secure, it is also entirely opt-in. Plus, it does not personally identify the phone’s owners, or even use any of the location data. All the communication is done through the unique “keys” that are shared over Bluetooth.

Launching the contact app statewide makes California the largest state to adopt the built-in technology – in terms of population. The reception here appears to be warmer than most too, perhaps in part because the state is home to the HQs of both Google and Apple, in general is known to be tech-savvier than most.

California Governor Gavin Newsom has high hopes with the app and has even made a statement in public on how he expects the state to have much better adoption rates – given the level of familiarity. They were also specially promoted by Apple’s Tim Cook and Google’s Sundar Pichai.

The US states that are currently using this technology include Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, Wyoming, and District of Columbia.

Instead of having a single contact tracing app for the entire country, there is a basic app that is customized for each of the states that have decided to opt-in. The process starts with the state’s premier public health authority to sign up for the Exposure Notification API. The health authority will then create an Android app, and an iOS app tailor-made for their region that will support said notifications.