Alabama, North Dakota, and South Carolina are the first states to announce that they will use Apple-Google’s exposure notification technology for their state COVID-19 tracking apps. Several countries in Europe have already agreed to use the technology.
The Apple-Google technology uses Bluetooth to aid in COVID-19 exposure notification. A user’s device with the technology enabled will send out a Bluetooth beacon that includes a random Bluetooth identifier associated with the user of the device. The identifier is changed every 10-20 minutes. When one user’s device is within range of another user’s device, each device will receive the other device’s beacon and store that received beacon on the device. If a person tests positive for COVID-19, that person may upload his or her diagnosis using a state run app, and with his or her consent, the relevant device beacon(s) will be added to a positive diagnosis list. At least once per day, each device will check the list of beacons it has recorded against the list of positive diagnosis beacons on the positive diagnosis list. If there is a match, the user may be notified that they have come into contact with an individual that tested positive for COVID-19, and the system will share the day the contact occurred, how long it lasted, and the Bluetooth signal strength (e.g., proximity) of that contact. More details on the technology can be found here.
On May 20, 2020, Apple and Google announced the launch of its exposure notification technology to public health agencies around the world, including a new software update that enables the Bluetooth technology. Not surprisingly, some public health authorities are saying that the technology is too restrictive because the decentralized processing of data on devices prevents aggregate analysis of infection hot spots and rates, and the technology excludes location data. On the flip-side, privacy advocates have raised privacy and civil liberty concerns about contact tracing and government surveillance generally in the wake of the pandemic. In the Frequently Asked Questions about the exposure notification technology, Apple and Google pledged that there will be no monetization from this project by Apple or Google, and that the system will only be used for contact tracing by public health authorities apps.
Have Apple and Google struck an appropriate balance between efficacy and civil liberties? Stay tuned.