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Apple and Google to make it easier to sign up for virus detection

Several government agencies may soon send residents a warning asking them to turn on “exposure alerts.”

On Tuesday, Apple and Google said they would make it easier for states to use their new technology that detects phones that come close to each other and can alert people who may have been exposed to coronavirus.

Logging in states will be able to send an alert directly to smartphones asking people to select technology. Earlier versions of the technology had required people to seek out a state health agency app.

The new approach could spur the popularity of such virus alert technology in the United States by significantly reducing barriers to use. Maryland, Virginia, Nevada and Washington, DC, are already planning to use the new system, Apple and Google said, and about 25 other states surveyed using the previous app version.

In a statement, Apple and Google called the changes a “next step in our work with public health authorities.” They said the shifts would help “public health authorities complement their existing contact tracking operations with technology without compromising the project’s main principles of user privacy and security.”

In April, Apple and Google announced that they were developing the technology, which uses Bluetooth signals to enable iPhones and Android devices to detect nearby phones. If someone using the technology tests positive for the virus, they can enter the positive result into the system using a unique authentication code. An automatic alert would then go to other phones that had dialed and had been in close contact.

When the pandemic took hold this spring, countries around the world ran to distribute virus apps to track and quarantine. However, some of the apps were mandatory and invasive, sending users’ locations and health information to the authorities. Many apps were also full of security flaws.

Apple-Google technology, on the other hand, does not collect personal health information or track users’ locations. This has made the system attractive in Europe and elsewhere. Germany, Denmark and Ireland have already released apps that use the 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 created such apps, although admissions have been slower. The Alabama app, released in mid-August, has had approximately 44,000 downloads.

To make the virus alert apps from different US states interoperable, the Association of Public Health Laboratories announced in July that they will host a national server for the data. This means that users of the Alabama app can one day discover nearby phones when traveling to Virginia and vice versa.

Now, to use Apple’s and Google’s technology, public health authorities simply have to provide certain parameters to companies, such as how close people need to be to trigger an exposure message and recommendations for those with potential exposure. Google would then create an app for the state, while Apple would activate the technology on the iPhone software. The system will then use approximate location data to send an alert to residents’ phones in that state and ask if they want to register. (On iPhones, registration requires pressing a button, while Android users are prompted to download the state app.)

Apple and Google have said they designed their technology to protect people’s privacy. The system does not share people’s identities with Apple, Google or other users, the companies said, and it does not share location data with health authorities or companies.

Google originally required Android users of the virus alert apps to turn on location services, which could have allowed Google to collect its location data. After health authorities in Europe complained, Google said it would stop requiring location services to be on to activate the apps.

Nevertheless, security researchers have warned that the technology can also be misused to send false alerts, spreading unnecessary alarms. While acknowledging the companies’ desire to help stem the pandemic, some said they were plagued by Apple’s and Google’s power to set global standards for public health agencies.

Ashkan Soltani, an independent security researcher, also warned that companies could at some point turn on virus alerts by default. “I continue to worry about quickly deploying a new technology to almost everyone’s device,” he said, “especially when the decision to do so is not made by decision makers, but unilaterally by these platforms.”

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