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Let There Be Privacy – The Latest iOS Update & COVID-19

Let There Be Privacy – The Latest iOS Update & COVID-19

In April this year, I wrote about how individual governments are using contact tracing to identify potential cases of COVID-19 and some of the potential privacy issues that may arise from constantly tracking people and their locations. It is ok if you missed it, you can still access it here. At that time, Apple and Google announced that they would work together to deliver a solution to contact tracing that is independent of the government entities.

As of Tuesday, Apple released iOS 13.7 that includes “Exposure Notifications”, the second phase in their contact tracing efforts, and the first one to be automatically installed on your phone. In the first phase of the contact tracing efforts, end-users had to download the application from their public health authorities/governments to have contact tracing activated for them. As you can see in the screenshot below, the Settings app has a new line item for “Exposure Notifications.”

Privacy - coronavirus - contact tracing

Great! Now how does it work? 

  1. According to the application information, your iPhone uses Bluetooth to keep a log of all the iOS and Android phones that have Exposure Notifications turned on and are in your vicinity in the past 14 days. 
  2. If someone reports that they have tested positive, they can report it in the application and anonymously notify those who have been near them. 
  3. If you’ve been exposed to anyone who has reported that they are positive, and your exposure exceeds certain guidelines, then you will be notified. Notifications vary from recommending you to quarantine and in cases of higher exposure, to get tested.

Signing up for Exposure Notifications is completely voluntary and by default is not activated on your phone. If you are using an application run by your government authority, you may continue to do so and don’t need to enable this. To protect your privacy, Apple uses random, rotating Bluetooth identifiers so that a single Bluetooth identifier can’t be tagged to a person and used as a personal identifier. What this means is that your Bluetooth identifier will be a string of random numbers that changes every 10 to 20 minutes. The only information being recorded is which devices you come in contact with, for how long, and your distance from the device/person based on how strong the Bluetooth signal is. 

Although this will transcend borders and boundaries and unify the notification system for travelers, one of the major drawbacks we see is that all this information is self-reported, so you will only know if a person shares their diagnosis. Hopefully, in the near future, public health authorities might be able to inform Apple & Google of those who have tested positive and further inform all those who have come in touch with these people.

Even Better! How do I get signed up?

For now, the application will be rolled out in Maryland, Nevada, Virginia, and D.C with many more to come in the near future. Once this has been rolled out in your state, here is what you can do to enable Exposure Notifications: 

  1. Update your iPhone to iOS 13.7, or your iPad to iPadOS 13.7
  2. Go to Settings -> Exposure Notifications   (screenshot above)exposure notification
  3. Click on Continue and Select your Country & State
  4. Once you have selected your state, you should get an option to Enable Notifications

If like me, you are in a state where this hasn’t been rolled out yet, you can turn on “Availability Alerts” that will inform you when this service is available. 

Privacy - coronavirus - contact tracing

Alternatively, if your State has an existing app for contact tracing, you will get a link to download it.

Privacy - coronavirus - contact tracing

So go ahead, download it, and cheers to your good health!

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