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TECH LAB

Apple and Google introduce an app-free virus-tracing program they hope will catch on with the public

Apple and Google are offering technology that detects when the phones of people known to be infected come close to one another.
Apple and Google are offering technology that detects when the phones of people known to be infected come close to one another.APPLE & GOOGLE/NYT


Apple and Google have introduced a notification program for their smartphones that will automatically alert users when they’ve been in contact with someone infected with the coronavirus.

The updates from the two technology giants would address a key shortcoming of earlier contact-tracing programs: Users had to install a special app to receive the alerts. The goal is to make the tracing program more appealing for state governments to adopt at a time when such efforts have not been widely embraced by the public,

Meanwhile, a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that made a contact-tracing app for public agencies is now is offering to help them take advantage of the new Apple-Google alert system.

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The initial tracing effort by Apple and Google, which they introduced in April, required users to install an app provided by government health departments. The system used Bluetooth technology to signal when a phone user was near someone who had been confirmed to be infected, without revealing their identity.

Six US states and a number of foreign countries have adopted the system, but the download requirement made it less likely that the public would willingly use it.

The new approach simplifies the process by building the alert into Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android software operating systems. Users get on-screen messages telling them how to activate the feature, but only if they live in a state that’s running an electronic contact-tracking program.

IPhone users won’t need to download a separate app. They will simply fill out a form agreeing to participate in the program. When a person is exposed to someone who is possibly infected, the user’s phone will get a push notification. Each state can decide what form this notification will take. It might be a text message or an e-mail, for instance.

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Android users must still download an app, but this happens automatically when a user agrees to participate in the tracking program.

Apple and Google said that Maryland, Nevada, and Virginia will be the first states to offer the updated service, alon g with the District of Columbia. The software is already available for iPhones in an upgrade for the iOS 13.7 software; the Android version becomes available later this month for all phones running Android Version 6.0 or newer.

MIT’s PathCheck Foundation, which made a COVID contact-tracing app that’s in use in Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Cyprus, said that it can help US states integrate the Apple/Google technology into their public health networks.

“We can get them going within a week,” said Ramesh Raskar, the foundation’s founder and an associate professor at the MIT Media Lab.

The biggest challenge, Raskar said, will be getting infected people to voluntarily enroll. Many might be unwilling to risk public exposure, even though the Apple-Google system does not reveal any users’ identities. Raskar noted that accurate contact tracing can save lives, even if only a small percentage of infected people let themselves be tracked.

Apple and Google cited a report from Oxford University that said a contact tracing program in which only 15 percent of infected people used a tracking app could reduce infections by 15 percent and deaths by 11 percent.



Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.