In late May, Apple and Google pushed out operating system updates that include the first version of the COVID-19 Exposure Notification API, programming that the two companies developed together. Subsequently, rumors have circulated that the “app” is being used by the government to track people’s movements.
First of all, it’s not an app and the misperception is not about semantics. The application programming interface (API) only facilitates COVID tracking when a compatible app from a public health agency is downloaded. Without an actual app, the API does nothing. Further, there are no public health agency apps yet available in this country, though other countries such as Denmark, Poland and Saudi Arabia do have apps that are working with the API. Canada will launch a test version on Thursday in Ontario.
To date, only four states have said they will release an app to enable exposure notification to its residents — Alabama, North Dakota, South Carolina and Virginia. But that could change with the surge of new cases, including a significant jump last week in active coronavirus cases across most of our state.
The most common reason cited for state and/or county health departments to not pursue a COVID-19 tracing app is privacy. In a recent survey conducted by Avira, a security software manufacturer, 71% of respondents said they won’t download such an app, and resistance grew stronger with age: 88% of those aged 55 or over said no.
If you’re curious about the API, here are some facts. You will only have the API if you have downloaded iOS 13.5 or the more recent 13.5.1 update for iPhone or Android’s May 20 update. The following directions are for the iPhone, but the API works the same way on Android. To check your installed iOS version, go to your phone’s settings, then General and finally About. Here, you will see your current software version. If you have not updated to 13.5 or later, you can do so by selecting Software Update, which is located under About. Make sure you have around 2 gigabytes of free storage on your phone and plug into your charger during the update process.
To take a look at the COVID-19 Exposure Notification API, go into your settings, scroll down to Privacy and then tap Health. At the top of your screen, you will see COVID-19 Exposure Logging, which is off by default. You will only be able to turn this feature on once an official app has been released and you have downloaded it to your phone. You’ll see that if you tap the arrow and proceed to the second page, Exposure Logging is not active.
If Utah decides to implement a tracing app, understand that the download would be voluntary. The API would use your phone’s Bluetooth to track those you have come into contact with for a set minimum period of time (determined by the issuing public health agency) and at close range. Note apps do not use your phone’s GPS feature and that logged data via Bluetooth is anonymous and encrypted. If you are diagnosed with COVID-19, you may elect to report it in the app and then those people who are using the same app would be notified that they may have been exposed to the virus.
Likewise, if you had been exposed to someone who was later diagnosed, you would receive the notification. Depending on testing capabilities in your area, the app could suggest you get tested or, if the healthcare system is overwhelmed, which happened in Salt Lake last week when the county ran out of tests and cancelled free testing to the public, you would be advised to self-isolate and monitor yourself for symptoms.
When you understand how it works, it’s really not so scary. Apple and Google have gone to great lengths to protect users’ privacy, while still providing a platform to help control the virus. But a tracing app is only effective when about 60% of the community are users, and at that rate, we’d have a long way to go based on the survey mentioned above. But Utahns have risen to challenges many times and can do so again if we put the health of our community first.
Leslie Meredith has been writing about and reviewing personal technology for the past eight years. She has designed and manages several international websites and now runs the marketing for a global events company. As a mom of four, value, usefulness and online safety take priority. Have a question? Email Leslie at email@example.com.