COVID-19, New Tech

How Do Digital Contact Tracing Apps Work? What Google And Apple Are Doing

Back in May 2020, a digital contact tracing app was launched by Google and Apple for smartphone users to track the spread of COVID-19. This app allows people to find out if or when they’ve come in close contact with someone carrying the coronavirus by way of anonymous detection developed by both software programmers and public health authorities. Let’s get into how Google and Apple are helping people stay informed and safe through app technology during the pandemic.

How are digital contact tracing apps working?

Here’s how digital contact tracing API’s work from Apple and Google:

  1. Users download a health department app with internet API, which will be supported on iOS devices within the last four years and Androids with Android 6.0.
  2. The app uses a smartphone’s Bluetooth Low Energy to broadcast an anonymous code to nearby devices using the same app.
  3. The range is about 30 feet. When users are out in public, surrounded by other people, their devices will exchange codes and store them for 14 days (which is the length of the coronavirus quarantine period). The phone’s signal strength calculates the distance apart from another person.
  4. If a user discovers they have COVID-19, they have the choice to alert other users within the app. This will be approved by health authorities who will verify the diagnosis and send their codes to a cloud-based database.
  5. Everyday, the database sends a list of the codes, called ‘diagnosis keys’, to smartphones. These keys are analyzed to check for matches between any codes collected in the past 14 days. Locations and device owners remain anonymous.
  6. If there’s a match found, the local public health authority uses the app to alert users if they’ve been exposed to the virus. Further information will be given to users on how to move forward.

Is digital contact tracing effective?

Effective digital contact tracing is a three-pronged process:

  1. First, the people with the virus must be identified.
  2. Second, the people who have been in physical contact with said person must be identified.
  3. Third, those contacts must be convinced to stay home and isolate themselves.

This new digital contact tracing API will be proven effective based on app downloads, frequency of public outings with smartphones, and compliance with health department protocols if an infection alert has been received.

Digital contact tracing apps can’t work if users don’t get tested for COVID-19 in person (as the app can’t diagnose someone of the virus) and everyone who gets an exposure notification through the app must take self-isolating very seriously.

Researchers at the University of Oxford calculated that 56% of the UK’s population would need to use the app in order for it to lessen the pandemic’s power. Even still, they mentioned, a lower number of app users can estimate a reduced number of cases.

Are digital contact tracing apps safe?

Digital contact tracing from Apple and Google aim to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in a faster way than other government-developed contact tracing apps. While other government-developed apps store people’s information in a government-owned server, the new API from Apple and Google will only store information on the individual’s phone – with the option to send that information to greater health authorities.

In terms of API privacy, both Apple and Google implement anonymous tracking data with this innovation. This means a user’s location won’t be collected or stored. Also, people who test positive won’t be identified to other users, Google, or Apple.

On top of that, Apple and Google don’t use GPS technology to track people’s locations. Instead, they use Bluetooth. Both companies say health department apps will be strictly reviewed before a connection is secured.

What are the next steps in digital contact tracing technology?

In August of this year, the US Association of Public Health Laboratories developed a communal server that makes it easier to exchange diagnosis keys to one another through app technology. Washington, D.C., along with 12 other states, launched apps through this system.

In September of this year, Google and Apple let health agencies across the US offer exposure notifications without the need for further app building. This tool called Exposure Notifications Express is imbedded in the operating system of iOS 13.7 and so forth. iPhone users can simply turn on notifications in their Settings, while Google has an app available per state.

Click here for more information about digital contact tracing apps from both Apple and Google!

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