Apple and Google launch contact tracing API for COVID-19 exposure

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The use of digital contact tracing technology, specifically tools built by Silicon Valley technology giants, has raised privacy concerns. (achinthamb/Shutterstock)

Apple and Google today rolled out their digital contact tracing technology that can be used by public health agencies to track COVID-19.

In early April, the two tech giants announced they were collaborating to build Bluetooth-based technology to aid in the fight against the pandemic.

Apple and Google's exposure notification application programming interface (API) will now be available to states, public health agencies and governments to build apps that will notify people via smartphone if they've come into contact with someone with the coronavirus.

It marks an unprecedented step for the two tech giants to collaborate on a high-tech approach to track coronavirus cases.

That API is available today through a new software update in the Android and iOS operating systems the companies pushed out Wednesday.

"Over the last several weeks, our two companies have worked together, reaching out to public health officials, scientists, privacy groups and government leaders all over the world to get their input and guidance," Apple and Google said in a joint statement.

The companies point out that the technology they've built is not an app. "Rather public health agencies will incorporate the API into their own apps that people install. Our technology is designed to make these apps work better," the companies said.

According to Apple and Google, each user gets to decide whether to opt into exposure notifications, and the system does not collect or use location data from the device.

RELATED: Apple, Google team up on COVID-19 contact tracing via smartphone apps

If a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, it is up to them whether to report that in the public health app, the companies said.

"User adoption is key to success and we believe that these strong privacy protections are also the best way to encourage use of these apps," they said.

Apple and Google said some U.S. states and 22 countries would be using the software, but the companies declined to provide a list of all the government agencies using it, The Washington Post reported.

“North Dakota is excited to be among the first states in the nation to utilize the exposure notification technology built by Apple and Google to help keep our citizens safe," Doug Burgum, governor of North Dakota, said in a statement.

The use of digital contact tracing technology has raised privacy concerns. According to a recent poll from The Washington Post and the University of Maryland, more than half of Americans would not use a contact tracing app or similar tools from Google and Apple over privacy concerns.

A Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking poll in late April also found that about half of consumers said they were unwilling to download a contact tracing app.

RELATED: Gottlieb, Mostashari propose national COVID-19 surveillance system

In a statement issued April 10 when the collaboration was announced, Jennifer Granick, American Civil Liberties Union surveillance and cybersecurity counsel, said people will only trust these systems "if they protect privacy, remain voluntary, and store data on an individual's device, not a centralized repository."

"At the same time, we must be realistic that such contact tracing methods are likely to exclude many vulnerable members of society who lack access to technology and are already being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic," Granick said.

To their credit, Apple and Google have announced an approach that appears to mitigate the worst privacy and centralization risks, but there is still room for improvement, Granick said.

On Capitol Hill, members of Congress have introduced legislation aimed at protecting the data collected by digital contact tracing tools and other pandemic response efforts.

Earlier this month, a group of Republican senators led by Roger Wicker of Mississippi introduced the COVID-19 Consumer Data Protection Act to hold businesses accountable to consumers if they use personal data to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, a group of Democrats led by Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal proposed a competing bill to set strong and enforceable privacy and data security rights for health information.

"As we consider new technologies that collect vast amounts of sensitive personal data, we must not lose sight of the civil liberties that define who we are as a nation," Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-California, said in a statement.

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