Governments and health authorities across the world are working together to create and implement viable solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic. During April we saw Apple and Google join forces to develop a solution using Bluetooth to help governments and health authorities implement useful contact tracing, with user privacy and security at the centre of the design.
Today, Apple and Google have released the first version of their Exposure API which has been in beta testing for some time now. There was some confusion previously where the understanding was Apple and Google releasing a contact tracing app, but this is not the case.
However the Exposure API is not for everyone. Developers must be using it on behalf of public health agencies. Apple reported 22 countries across five continents have requested this feature. Over the next few weeks we should see contract tracing apps improve and utilise this API.
Yes, privacy has been considered
Is is common to ask “How safe is my data with the Exposure API?” especially when two big companies are handling it
The Exposure API works on a safe decentralised system, using temporary random keys that are not tied to the users profile or identify. This means the key changes from time-to-time, and when the key changes data the previous key becomes unviable for future communication in the decentralised system.
Encryption has gone as far as the Bluetooth metadata such as signal strength and specific transmitting power.
Apple and Google have also explicitly barred use of the Exposure API in any apps that also request geolocation data from users.
The companies provided a statement on the matter:
One of the most effective techniques that public health officials have used during outbreaks is called contact tracing. Through this approach, public health officials contact, test, treat and advise people who may have been exposed to an affected person. One new element of contact tracing is Exposure Notifications: using privacy-preserving digital technology to tell someone they may have been exposed to the virus. Exposure Notification has the specific goal of rapid notification, which is especially important to slowing the spread of the disease with a virus that can be spread asymptomatically.
To help, Apple and Google cooperated to build Exposure Notifications technology that will enable apps created by public health agencies to work more accurately, reliably and effectively across both Android phones and iPhones. Over the last several weeks, our two companies have worked together, reaching out to public health officials scientists, privacy groups and government leaders all over the world to get their input and guidance.
Starting today, our Exposure Notifications technology is available to public health agencies on both iOS and Android. What we’ve built is not an app — rather public health agencies will incorporate the API into their own apps that people install. Our technology is designed to make these apps work better. Each user gets to decide whether or not to opt-in to Exposure Notifications; the system does not collect or use location from the device; and if a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, it is up to them whether or not to report that in the public health app. User adoption is key to success and we believe that these strong privacy protections are also the best way to encourage use of these apps.
Today, this technology is in the hands of public health agencies across the world who will take the lead and we will continue to support their efforts.
We should see further support from Apple and Google supporting contact-tracing efforts with public health officials and agencies. There have been a lot of changes in the world from the pandemic, and it’s great to see companies like Apple and Google adapting.