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As promised when the two companies first announced their partnership earlier this year, Apple and Google have now moved to the second phase of their COVID-19 Exposure Notification System, building in features at the operating level that will allow users to opt-in to take advantage of the contact tracing features even if their regional public health authority hasn’t released an actual ENS app.
When the two companies first began development of the Exposure Notification System, they noted that it would begin by providing a framework that third-party apps would tie into, essentially building the underlying tools into the operating system to log Bluetooth proximity contacts, but not enabling the feature unless the appropriate app was installed from a government-sanctioned health agency.
Apple in fact wrapped a number of strict rules about how these apps were to work, including the fact that it would only generally approve one app per regional health authority. In most cases, that’s mean one app per country, although the U.S. is a notable exception, where apps have been rolled out on a state-by-state basis, with the first ENS app coming out from Virginia in late July.
While the Exposure Notification System first landed in iOS 13.5, it remained fully disabled until a compatible ENS app was installed, which means that many users were unable to take advantage of it at all.
For privacy reasons, the ENS API wouldn’t even log proximity data from other devices until it was “unlocked” by installing the appropriate app from the user’s health authority, but with so many states not offering their own ENS apps, this left out a vast majority of the U.S. population.
Last week, however, Apple dropped its first (and only) iOS 13.7 beta, which seems to have been developed exclusively to let users opt-in to the COVID-19 Exposure Notifications System even if they don’t have an app installed, however, although IOS 13.7 was released to the public last week, there are still a few catches to how the new “Exposure Notifications Express” system been implemented. Here’s what you need to know.
Local Public Health Authorities Still Need to Opt-In
The new iOS 13.7 ENS feature is not a free-for-all, and you’ll only be able to turn it on if your local state health authority enables it for you.
What Apple and Google are actually trying to do here is make it easier for public health authorities to provide exposure notifications. Developing a full app requires a substantial investment of resources, so instead what state health agencies can now do is simply provide a configuration file to enable the feature.
As The Verge reports, this file will be used by agencies to set parameters that are normally determined by a standalone app, including things like risk scores, recommendations for users who have been exposed, and a link to their specific agency website.
For iPhone users, the configuration file will unlock the COVID ENS features found in the iOS Settings app, while Android users will actually get an automatically generated standalone app on their home screen. It’s not entirely clear how these configuration files will be deployed, but it sounds like they will be pushed out over-the-air, with users in those regions being presented with a lock-screen alert to let them know that the system is available and offering to allow them to easily opt-in.
This Doesn’t Replace Your Existing COVID ENS App
If your public health authority already has already released a COVID ENS app, you’ll be expected to continue using that. This system isn’t designed as a replacement for those apps, but rather a way for states and countries to easily enable the ENS system without the time and expense of developing their own standalone iOS or Android apps.
For example, as iPhone in Canada notes, uninstalling the Canadian COVID Alert app on iOS 13.7 actually disabled exposure notifications immediately, with a note that “Your region has an exposure notification app” and a prompt to install it to enable exposure notifications.
It Remains Completely Private
The entire Exposure Notification System has been built with privacy in mind, and not only does the Express system not change that in any way, but it’s arguably more private since you’re no longer dealing with a separate third-party app.
To be fair, Apple has made it very clear that apps using the ENS framework can collect virtually no personal information, and they’re also prohibited from even requesting permissions for things like location services. Most of the apps we’ve seen are completely anonymous, so there’s no reason to believe they don’t also protect your privacy. ENS Express runs on the exact same underlying framework — it just lacks the front-end app to drive it — so it has all of the exact same strong privacy protections built right in.
It Will Work Across State Lines
Back in July, the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) deployed a national key server that all state public health agencies can tie into, supplying the other piece of the equation that was a challenge for some states.
Combined with the changes in iOS 13.7, it means that local public health authorities not only don’t need to develop their own apps, but they don’t need to run their own servers either.
More importantly, however, the presence of a single national server means that users can be notified of potential exposure even if they’re visiting a different state, or if they were exposed by somebody who was visiting from a different state — provided of course that both states are using the Apple-Google ENS system.
More States Are Coming on Board
According to The Verge, the new update means that at least a few more states that previously had no plans to adopt the exposure notification system will be coming on board. This includes Maryland, Nevada, and Washington, D.C.
It’s unclear whether other states that have committed to developing full ENS apps will be changing their plans in light of this new development, but if it means that they can deploy ENS more quickly in their areas, it’s generally going to be a win. There’s also nothing in the framework that precludes a health agency from enabling the built-in ENS now with a configuration file and then later replacing that with a full-fledged app.
According to Apple and Google, there are now 25 states and territories exploring solutions related to the Exposure Notifications System, representing about 55 percent of the U.S. population.
Since ENS Express will undoubtedly help to reduce the friction for both public health agencies and end-users to opt into the system, it’s the hope of many that this will result in much more widespread adoption.