Apple and Google will now allow public health authorities to implement digital COVID-19 exposure notification, without the need to develop or maintain a custom contact tracing app, the companies said in a joint press statement on Tuesday. This comes after the two had first joined forces to make an interoperable contact-tracing system based on Bluetooth technology to track the spread of the coronavirus. They had first launched an exposure notification API in May.

The new update is called Exposure Notification Express, and to make use of it, public health authorities will have to give Apple and Google their name, logo, criteria for triggering an exposure notification and the materials to be presented to users in case of exposure; they will use then this information to offer a fully operational Exposure Notifications System.

“As the next step in our work with public health authorities on Exposure Notifications, we are making it easier and faster for them to use the Exposure Notifications System without the need for them to build and maintain an app. 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. “Existing apps using the Exposure Notification API will be compatible with Exposure Notifications Express, and we are committed to supporting public health authorities that have deployed or are building custom apps.”

The feature is already available to iPhone users with the latest iOS update, and Android users will get the update later this month. One thing to note is that this feature won’t be available in India. “While the capability exists in phones, the API needs to be specifically utilized by an official contact tracing app from a public health authority. Currently no Indian health authority is using this API in their contact tracing apps,” a Google spokesperson told MediaNama. The Indian government’s contact tracing tool, Aarogya Setu, relies on a phone’s location, whereas Apple and Google’s system only uses Bluetooth, in a bid to be more privacy protecting.

How the system will work, in theory

There is a little difference in how the update will work on Apple and Google devices, however. After upgrading to iOS 13.7 (the latest version of iOS), users in regions using the Exposure Notifications Express will be shown a notification informing them the availability of the feature; tapping the notification will take them through a consent flow that will allow them to turn this feature on without downloading an app.

On Android, users will be similarly notified that exposure notifications are available, but will then be prompted to download the public health authority app, which will be generated by Google using the information provided by the health authority. This is not a contact tracing app, and will merely contain information about guidelines to send exposure notifications, so that Google can use it to send a notification.

Source: Apple and Google press release

Since May 20, when the two had launched the exposure notification API, more than 20 countries and regions have deployed apps using it, with many more on the way, the two companies said. In the US, 25 states, territories, and the district of Columbia (collectively covering more than 55% of the U.S. population) have been “exploring” the API, while six states have already launched their apps based on Apple and Google’s protocol.