Apple is introducing support for COVID-19 Exposure Notifications without downloading an app in iOS 13.7, but iPhone users remain in control.
Phase two of the Apple/Google contact tracing plan
Apple is currently beta testing its iOS 13.7 update among developers. The main addition to the new app is the expansion of the COVID-19 Exposure Notification API.
Apple says this will let iPhone users opt-in to receive Exposure Notifications without the need to download an app from your local public health authority.
When Apple and Google jointly announced the move to introduce contact tracing tools within their operating systems they committed to enabling a Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms.
This is what iOS 13.7 ushers in.
The way this works gives iPhone users control over what information is shared, if at all, but does make a few compromises: While you can opt-in to receive notifications (you don’t have to, but I think you probably should) you can’t actually report on your condition unless you also download and install a supported public health app.
In other words:
- What this does:
- You’ll be told if you’ve been exposed to the disease – but only if local public health authorities support the technology.
- What it doesn’t do:
- Let you do your public duty and warn others if you have contracted COVID-19. You need to use a supported public health app for that.
- What it isn’t doing:
- Tracking you in an intrusive way. Your data stays on your device, apparently.
The slow pace of necessity
While apps integrating the Apple/Google Exposure Notification technology are slowly rolling out, some governments resisted using them.
In some cases I think authorities hoped to use the crisis as a way to introduce less anonymized and (in my opinion) frankly creepy surveillance technology.
This is hopefully changing as more come to accept the arguments Google and Apple have been making.
“All of us at Apple and Google believe there has never been a more important moment to work together to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems. Through close cooperation and collaboration with developers, governments, and public health providers, we hope to harness the power of technology to help countries around the world slow the spread of COVID‑19 and accelerate the return of everyday life,” a joint company statement declares.
What Apple says about iOS 13.7
This is what the company says about the technology:
“iOS 13.7 lets you opt-in to the COVID-19 Exposure Notifications system without the need to download an app. System availability depends on support from your local public health authority. For more information see covid19.apple.com/contacttracing. This release also includes other bug fixes for your iPhone.”
We don’t yet know when the update will ship to all iPhone customers, but it’s not likely to be a terribly long wait now it is being tested.
How it works
As previously reported, the system works like this:
- Smartphones running the technology broadcast randomly created, unique identifiers using Bluetooth Low Energy that change every 15-minutes.
- Any device within two meters distance will record that signal ID, which is designed to protect end user anonymity. The identifier contains no other personal information.
- The list of identifiers you have interacted with doesn’t leave your device unless you choose to share it.
- All matching takes place on the device and uses relay servers which forward information to your device.
- If you test positive with the virus you will not be identified to other users, Apple or Google, but the system can tell if you have been in proximity of someone suffering COVID-19 in the last 14-days, and warn you of this.
Will I be using it? Yes, but I must be convinced my privacy is respected and protected before using any app.
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