Apple and Google announced a new app system to track COVID-19 exposures

Apple and Google announced a new app system to track COVID-19 exposures


Apple and Google launched automatically generated software frameworks to help countries use their contact tracing applications. Developed as an extension of the previous exposure notification framework, the new system allows public health authorities to avoid the broader development work of launching standalone apps, simply configuring the basic framework for their state's needs. Existing applications will not be affected by the new framework, and adopting that framework will not prevent countries from launching more engaging applications in the future.

“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,” Apple and Google said in a statement. “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.”


First launched in April, the exposure notification system used by Apple and Google left most of the app development work to local public health departments, with a focus on ensuring privacy and interoperability after notifications are shared. But while 25 states are exploring multiple types of application systems, only six of those projects have been launched, in most cases because of the technical burden of building and deploying applications.

“Public health agencies are carrying an extraordinary load in managing the novel coronavirus response,” said Scott J. Becker, CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL), in a statement. “Offering a turn-key solution such as EN Express can greatly reduce their burden and eliminate many of the up-front requirements of building an app and setting up servers.”

This framework enables interoperability between states, with the ability to notify Virginia app users of exposures from Maryland app users, for example. In July, APHL launched a national key server to allow more efficient interoperability between state agencies.

Under the new system, participating health departments will collect configuration files, enable them to assign their risk scores, direct users to their specific health department websites, and modify recommendations for users who have been exposed. After the configuration is complete, iOS and Android can automatically generate the required software, even though the two operating systems handle the task differently. On Android, the configuration file will automatically generate a custom Android app, while iOS will enter the settings into its OS-level contacts system.

An iOS version will be built into iOS 13.7, which is set to take effect on Tuesday. Android plans to implement the system later this month for all users with Android 6.0 or higher.

The exposure notification system was originally designed to avoid excessive data collection, but the introduction of an out-of-the-box app means more data will be collected by Apple and Google. iOS will still collect general device analytics and crash information (if the user has chosen). Android apps created automatically will collect unidentified system info including API error calls, but the team says there is still no data collection that can identify specific users who have been exposed. Google has also committed to publishing the source code of auto-generated Android apps to enable third-party auditing.

Maryland, Nevada, Virginia, and Washington, DC have already committed to deploying the new system, and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said in a statement that the new framework will help his state’s ongoing public health efforts. “Exposure Notifications Express will help to save lives, greatly enhance our contact tracing operation, and advance our statewide COVID-19 recovery,” said Hogan in a statement. “We appreciate our collaboration with Apple and Google, and look forward to launching this state-of-the-art technology in Maryland.”

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