Several state governments could soon send residents an alert asking them to activate "exposure notifications".
On Tuesday, Apple and Google said they would make it easier for states to use their new technology that can detect phones that are close together and notify people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus.
States that sign up can send a notification directly to smartphones prompting users to opt for the technology. In previous versions of the technology, users had to search for a government health department app.
The new approach could boost the popularity of such virus warning technology in the United States by significantly lowering the barriers to its use. Maryland, Virginia, Nevada and Washington, D.C. are already planning to use the new system, Apple and Google said, and about 25 other states are investigating use of the earlier version of the app.
In a statement, Apple and Google called the changes a "next step in our work with health authorities". They said the shifts would "help health officials add technology to their existing contact tracing operations without compromising the basic principles of privacy and safety for the project's users."
In April, Apple and Google announced that they were developing technology that uses Bluetooth signals to detect nearby phones for iPhones and Android devices. If someone using the technology tests positive for the virus, that person can enter the positive result into the system with a unique authentication code. An automatic notification would then be sent to other phones that had logged on and were in close contact.
When the pandemic broke out this spring, countries around the world tried to deploy virus apps to track and quarantine people. However, some of the apps were mandatory and invasive, sending users' locations and health data to their governments. Many apps were also riddled with security holes.
In contrast, Apple-Google technology does not collect personal health information and does not track users' locations. This has made the system attractive in Europe and elsewhere. Germany, Denmark and Ireland have already released apps using this technology, and millions of people in Europe have downloaded them.
In the United States, public health agencies in Virginia, Arizona, Nevada, Alabama, North Dakota, and Wyoming have also developed such apps, although adoption has been slower. The Alabama app, released in mid-August, had approximately 44,000 downloads.
In order to make virus alert apps from different US states interoperable, the Association of Public Health Laboratories announced in July that it would host a national server for the data. This means that one day, users of the Alabama app may be able to detect nearby phones when traveling to Virginia and vice versa.
In order to use Apple and Google technology, the state health authorities only need to provide companies with certain parameters, e.g. B. how close employees need to be to trigger an exposure notification and recommendations for people with potential exposures. Google would then create an app for the state while Apple would enable the technology on the iPhone software. The system would then use approximate location data to send an alert to residents' phones in that state asking if they would like to log in. (On iPhones, a button must be tapped to register, while Android users are prompted to download the state app.)
Apple and Google have stated that they developed their technology to protect people's privacy. The system does not share the identity of anyone with Apple, Google or other users, according to the companies, and it does not share location data with health authorities or companies.
Google first asked Android users of the virus alert apps to turn on location services, which may allow Google to collect their location data. After health officials in Europe complained, Google announced that it would no longer enable location services to enable the apps.
Still, security researchers have warned that the technology could also be misused to send false warnings, thereby spreading unnecessary alarms. While acknowledging companies' desire to help contain the pandemic, some expressed concern about the power of Apple and Google to set global standards for public health officials.
Ashkan Soltani, an independent security researcher, also warned that companies might at some point turn on virus notifications by default. "I continue to worry that a new technology can be quickly deployed to almost any device," he said, "especially when the decision is not made by policy makers but unilaterally by those platforms."