How Apple's new COVID-19 contact tracing process works


Apple’s iOS 13.7 update has introduced a new Exposure Notification setting, but it requires support from your state’s health authority.

Image: Ministry of Health Singapore

A variety of countries and companies have been trying to fight the coronavirus pandemic through contact tracing technology, which works by alerting people if they’ve been in contact with individuals who’ve tested positive for COVID-19. Among the tech players involved in the effort are Apple and Google, who in April jointly announced a system that would be built into the operating system on all iPhones and Android phones. On Tuesday, Apple unveiled iOS 13.7 with a new contact tracing platform that relies on notifications from your state’s public health authority. Here’s how it works.

SEE: How tech companies are fighting COVID-19 with AI, data and ingenuity (TechRepublic) 

Your iPhone will tap into your Bluetooth connection to look for nearby iPhones and Android phones that have the Exposure Notification feature enabled. You device keeps a 14-day log of any corresponding devices, though Apple and Google have promised that no personally identifiable information or user location data will be collected.

If someone tests positive for COVID-19, that person can opt to anonymously share that diagnosis via the Exposure Notifications feature. Your phone checks the stored log to see if anyone with whom you’ve been in contact has received a positive diagnosis. If such an exposure is detected, you’re then notified through your public health authority.

“Contact tracing technology requires confirmation when someone becomes infected,” Tony Anscombe, chief security evangelist at security provider ESET, told TechRepublic. “This needs to be done by a verified method such as a QR code or number coming from the state’s health authority, thus requiring cooperation and opt-in by the health authority. The verification removes the possibility of false positives and malicious behavior.”

To investigate the new feature, iPhone owners will need to download the latest update. Go to Settings and then General and select Software Update. Make sure you have iOS 13.7 or higher. (Users of Android 6.0 or higher will get the same feature on their phones later this month).

To enable the contact tracing notifications, go to Settings and then Exposure Notifications. Make sure Availability Alerts on turned on. This option alerts you when and if COVID-19 exposure notifications become available from your local public health authority. Here, you can also tap the link for How Exposure Notifications work. Otherwise, tap the link to Turn on Exposure Notifications (Figure A).

Figure A

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Read the next screen for COVID-19 Exposure Notifications and then tap Continue. Choose your country or region. If necessary, choose your state or region (Figure B).

Figure B

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The next screen will indicate whether or not your state or region already has an Exposure Notification app. Here’s where the process gets a bit tricky and confusing, at least for now.

The contact tracing built into iOS 13.7 and soon to come to Android 6.0 or higher won’t require a separate app from your state’s public health authority, but it will require opt-in support from that authority. That support is supposed to be in the works among a few different states, though there are certain challenges.

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

“Removing the barrier to enter the contact tracing technology arena by providing the app framework does make it simpler, however, there are still significant server requirements, processes, and policy needed by the state to opt in to the technology,” Anscombe said. For example, users are likely to seek assurance regarding privacy from the state. The opt-in by states will depend on whether all the other elements required for contact tracing are aligned to make the technology an effective part of a broader solution.”

Until the necessary authorities start to opt in, you can use an existing app from your state or region if one exists. Such an app can integrate with Apple’s notification feature. See if the screen lists the name of such an app to help you find it in the App Store. For example, Arizona has an app called Covid Watch Arizona, Nevada has an app called COVID Trace Nevada, North Dakota and Wyoming have an app named Care19 Alert, Virginia has its app named COVIDWISE, and Alabama has an app known as GuideSafe (Figure C).

Figure C

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After downloading and installing the app for your location, open it and go through the setup process. Return to the Exposure Notifications under Settings where you can enable or disable certain options and work with your region’s contact tracing app (Figure D).

Figure D

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The new feature is an improvement over the Exposure Notification API introduced in iOS 13.5, which did require a separate app for each authority.

“The release of iOS 13.7 removes the need for app development and places the functionality within the operating system,” Anscombe said. “The user will not need to download an app–just enable the feature in iOS. The public health authority will only need to provide configuration data that mirrors state health policy to enable the technology.”

Contact tracing isn’t a new concept; it’s been used with past pandemics and outbreaks. But there are certain advantages to having the technology available on a mobile phone.

SEE: Big data’s role in COVID-19 (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

“The main pro is that the handsets are explicitly designing low level systems to support these types of use cases, which arguably means they’ll be more stable, resilient, and secure,” Casey Ellis, CTO and founder of Bugcrowd, told TechRepublic. “Up until now, Bluetooth and handsets were not built to support peer-to-peer contact tracing, so a lot of security research needed to be done to make it work, and work securely.”

But for contact tracing to be effective on a mobile landscape, the process needs to catch on with mobile phone users. Will that happen?

“I believe it will, especially as the pandemic continues to impact global health, economy, and mobility,” Ellis said. “Keep in mind that COVID-19 is not likely to be the last pandemic (or widely spread disease) we’ll see. By perfecting these contact tracing tools now, we will be able to better right future pandemics. Both Apple and Google must be taking this consideration into account as well.”

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