Software Development
Apps / COVID-19

Maryland residents will soon be able to opt in to Google and Apple’s mobile contact tracing tool

Gov. Larry Hogan said Maryland will be among the first states to join the tech companies' Exposure Notifications Express functionality.

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During Gov. Larry Hogan’s press conference on Maryland’s COVID-19 response on Tuesday, screenshots of an app made an appearance among the slide deck.

“To further enhance our state’s contact tracing efforts, I’m pleased to announce that in collaboration with Apple and Google, Maryland will be one of the first states in the nation to use Exposure Notifications Express, which is a state-of-the art app designed to help public officials more quickly provide notifications for residents about potential COVID-19 exposure,” Hogan said.

It means Maryland residents will soon be able to add a feature that enables alerts when they came into proximity of someone with COVID-19 on their phones. The move comes as Apple and Google are launching a new software framework that helps states deploy the functionality within iOS and Android systems. According to The Verge, this is designed so that public health authorities won’t have to launch their own apps.

In April, Apple and Google first announced a partnership to help authorities with contact tracing. After several states built their own apps, this latest move is characterized as a next step to ease adoption.

To launch the express service, states must opt-in, as Maryland is doing. Virginia, D.C. and Nevada will also be among the first areas to add the feature. These jurisdictions don’t have to build standalone apps, but must deploy two types of servers, according to Apple’s description of how the app works for developers.

As for users, they will have to opt-in, as well. After changing their settings in response to a notification, the function will use Bluetooth data and enable notifications if users come into contact with someone who has reported testing positive for the coronavirus. The iOS version is built into iOS 13.7, which was released Tuesday, while Android will be available for users with Android 6.0 or higher.

According to FAQs posted by Apple and Google, the public health authorities set parameters around time and distance that could indicate exposure. Phones work in the background to exchange random IDs that change every 10-20 minutes. If there’s a match between between an ID that indicates a COVID-19 case, a user will get a notification, the Android FAQ states.

With data sharing agreements may come concerns about privacy. In its FAQ, Apple said that the system does not share location data with the user’s device, and the system is only used by public health authorities. Plus, users can turn the function off, they say.

The tool shows a sign of tech companies contributing to the COVID-19 response, and a partnership between two giants of the industry that typically compete continuing to evolve. But as with any app launch, wide adoption will be a key indicator as to whether it can contribute to fighting the virus. A Washington Post report last month indicated that app-based tracing efforts worldwide were struggling to get the wide uptake necessary to help authorities. With this latest move, the companies are looking to make it easier to sign up, starting with the states that must allow it.

Companies: Apple / Google / State of Maryland

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