Apple, Google's contact-tracing system available, won't work with Aarogya Setu
More than a month after announcing the plan to team up for a COVID-19 contact-tracing system, Google and Apple have made the technology available to the world. The companies have announced that their Exposure Notification API - the first phase of the project - is ready to be used by public health agencies (PHAs). However, it won't work with India's Aarogya Setu app.
On April 10, Apple and Google announced that they would work together on a comprehensive privacy-focused contact-tracing system for the novel coronavirus disease. The companies had claimed that the project would be rolled-out in two phases; one will make the system available through an Exposure Notification API, which government health agencies can use in their apps, while the other will involve broader OS-level integration.
Now, keeping the promise made, the companies have started the first phase by making the Exposure Notification API available to PHAs. The countries that will use this API in their apps will enable a system that will alert their citizens (having the app on their phones) about close contact with someone who has been tested positive for COVID-19.
At its core, the contact tracing API will use Bluetooth to exchange unique keys between closely-located iOS/Android devices and record 'contacts'. Then, if a person tests positive for COVID-19, they can update that on their app, submitting their unique key to a centralized database of confirmed cases and allowing the system to immediately alert all those who had been in contact with them.
Technology can help health officials rapidly tell someone they may have been exposed to COVID-19. Today the Exposure Notification API we created with @Google is available to help public health agencies make their COVID-19 apps effective while protecting user privacy.— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) May 20, 2020
At the time of writing, 22 countries across five continents have already requested access to the Exposure Notification API for their respective health apps. Google and Apple have said that the API will be given for one app per country but there could be exceptions if a nation is adopting a regional approach for tracing, testing, and isolating potential COVID-19 cases.
The companies have assured users that the tracing system will not involve location, and Bluetooth metadata will be encrypted. Plus, it will only work with the consent of the users who will get the option to disable exposure notifications if they wish so.
The privacy standard set by Google and Apple for the new API means that India's own contact-tracing app, Aarogya Setu, cannot use it. Aarogya Setu has been downloaded by over 10 crore Indians and, unlike Apple and Google's solution, it continues to track location data. Notably, the app is not even open-sourced and there is no option to disable exposure notifications.
That said, on their end, Google and Apple have started making changes to their operating systems to support the new API and the government apps that choose to use it. Apple's update to support exposure notification functionality is coming via iOS/iPadOS 13.5, while Google is rolling-out a Play Services update to support all the phones running Android 6.0 Marshmallow or newer versions.
The development comes as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on a global scale. The disease, which started in China's Wuhan, has infected over 50 lakh people and killed nearly 3.3 lakh in different parts of the world.