Coronavirus: Apple iPhones can contact-trace without Covid app

Coronavirus: Apple iPhones can contact-trace without Covid app

By Leo Kelion
Technological bench editor

Apple Covid image

copyright of the imageApple / Getty

Apple has begun allowing its iPhones to perform contact tracking without the need for users to download an official Covid-19 app.

Alternatively, users are encouraged to join a scheme called Exposure Notifications Express (ENE).

This keeps a 14-day log of other nearby smartphones detected via Bluetooth and provides an alert if another owner is later diagnosed to have the virus.

The local public health authority will determine what the notification says.

It may ask the user to download a more fully functional app for further guidance.

However, it also gives officials the option not to develop an app of their own, in which case the user may be directed to go to a test center or call a hotline for more information.

IPhone owners who get sick without receiving an alert message can still cause a series of alerts to be sent to others. But since they won’t have an app to start the process, this will be done by tapping on a text message sent by the public health authority on their smartphone after a positive diagnosis.

The facility was implemented as part of Apple’s latest mobile operating system update, iOS 13.7, which has just been released.

Reduced costs

Users can enable ENE via a new Exposure Notifications option in the main iPhone Settings menu.

However, because it depends on the health chiefs providing the criteria for which alerts should be raised – including how close two people must have been together and for how long – it won’t work without their involvement.

Until officials decide whether or not to support the initiative, users are asked to download a local app if there is an alternative or are told “exposure notifications have not been triggered by your health authority.”

To date, more than 20 countries, provinces and other regions have released apps based on the contact tracking framework from Apple and Google. They include:

  • republic of Ireland
  • northern Ireland
  • Germany
  • Switzerland
  • Japan
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Gibraltar
The UK’s NHS Test and Trace service is currently testing an app that is also based on the technology giants’ API (application programming interface). And Scotland plans to do so

releases a product of its own later this month, based on that of the Republic of Ireland.

However, only six of the 57 states in the United States have currently adopted the technology. The launch of ENE can encourage them to do so as it saves them development time and maintenance costs.

Regardless of how Apple and Google’s “decentralized” model is implemented, the authorities can’t see which or how many users received a warning.

Likewise, users cannot see who caused them to be notified.

Additionally, users can withdraw from the new initiative at any time via a switch in the settings menu.

Android alternative

Google will follow Apple with its own parallel scheme later this month for Android.

copyright of the imageGoogle / Getty
image captionGoogle will propose to release an app on behalf of health authorities based on the parameters set

It will have the same name, but instead of going the app-free route, Google has chosen to automatically create a basic coronavirus tracking app for public health authorities based on the criteria they provide.

Authorities benefiting from this offer can still develop a more elaborate Covid-19 app at a later stage if they wish.

“Exposure Notifications Express offers another option for health authorities to integrate their current contact-tracking operations with technology, without compromising the project’s core principles of user privacy and security,” Apple and Google said in a joint statement. .

In theory this could be the time when automatic contact tracking takes off.

By putting what it calls Exposure Notification Express into an OS update on millions of iPhones, Apple is removing a lot of friction from the process.

People who can’t be bothered installing apps – or perhaps don’t trust them – may be more inclined to just turn the system on in their settings.

Another benefit is that the system should work across borders as long as countries join so they can mark phones as belonging to people who tested positive.

But there is a real danger: that the system leaves many confused and suspicious.

How it works is complex, and it may seem to many people that they are being asked to trust the tech giant rather than their local health service.

Related topics

  • Contact tracking

  • Google
  • Apple
  • App

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