iOS 13.7 and Android bake in COVID-19 exposure notification to speed up tracing

Apple and Google are launching the second stage of their digital COVID-19 exposure notification system, baking the technology into iOS and Android. Currently, though both platforms support digital contact tracing – and can monitor proximity regardless of whether a person is using an iPhone or an Android device – it requires a separate app in order to work.

The goal, however, was always to embed the functionality into the core of Android and iOS, so that a separate app was not required. As of today, with iOS 13.7, and later this month, for Android 6.0+, users will be able to turn on native exposure notifications themselves.

It's being branded "Exposure Notifications Express," and the hope is that it accelerates the use of such tracking systems given few states in the US have actually launched apps so far. Only six American states- Alabama, Arizona, Nevada, North Dakota, Virginia, and Wyoming – have released software that taps into the existing APIs that Apple and Google provided.

According to the companies, however, around half of the US states are at least considering using the system. That would represent a little over half of the US population as a whole. One of the issues holding them back has apparently been the technical and logistical challenges of developing the software for residents to actually download.

"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," Apple and Google said in a joint-statement.

With iOS 13.7 and, as of later this month, any version of Android 6.0 or above, there'll be a new Exposure Notifications Express system which can be turned on. When active, and used with participating health departments that support it, users will get a push notification that it's available. If they agree, their phones will use Bluetooth to track which other devices have been in close proximity.

Different health departments will be able to set different configurations for things like risk levels, and how long before a contact is considered "exposed" and thus logged. On iPhone, there'll be no standalone app required. For Android users, those who opt-in will either be referred to a local app if one is already available, or Android will be able to get a generic one from the Google Play store and automatically configure it with the local settings.

Google and Apple say that they're not collecting data themselves on location or identity, and nor do health authorities get those specifics. Instead, if someone is later diagnosed with COVID-19, they can choose to have their log file notify those devices which were in contact within a period where they may have been contagious but showing no symptoms.