The Apple Google API is a supplement to manual tracing, not a substitute

By William Rinehart

Published:

What does the Exposure Notification API do?

The system that Google and Apple have created is one implementation of an idea that has many other incarnations. If an app with the API is enabled, a user’s phone will use Bluetooth to send out a beacon every five minutes. That beacon includes a unique identifier, which is a string of random numbers that changes every 10–20 minutes and isn’t tied to a user’s identity. Whenever another phone with the app turned on comes into close contact, it securely stores that string of information. At least once a day, the system will download a set of keys that have been verified by health care workers as COVID positive. If a match is made, the user will be alerted and be given further steps.

Where do apps fit into contact tracing methods?

Tracing infections to isolate a virus has been shown to be a successful mitigation strategy in a pandemic. In large outbreaks, like the current one the United States faces, manual tracing becomes a laborious process, requiring recruitment and training to help identify the sick and quarantine the exposed. A recently released report from California’s public health department and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attests to these costs. From February 5 to March 17, state health employees spent nearly 1,700 hours collecting and analyzing data on 11,574 travelers from China and Iran at California airports and were only able to identify just three positive cases.

Privacy issues

Critics of the Apple and Google API have attacked the approach from both sides, with some claiming that it is too privacy-invasive and others claiming that it doesn’t go far enough. While no system is perfect, the API helps to protect users’ privacy without allowing the surveillance of countries like China and Singapore.

What’s next?

In the near future, apps integrating the Exposure Notification API should begin to appear. State and federal public health authorities have already deployed applications, so some might switch to the API. One could also imagine that insurance companies would incorporate this proximity system into their apps and encourage users to turn it on. Given the restrictions imposed, however, it is unlikely that Instagram, Facebook, and Google would integrate this API into their most popular mobile programs.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.