Covid19 Exposure Notification API by Apple, Google Helps Protect, Not Violate, User Privacy
Exposure Notification, an application program interface (API) built by Google and Apple to assist with contact tracing, is now rolling out in Indian smartphones. Although the API is not compatible with India’s Aarogya Setu app yet, it is already receiving interest from Indian citizens. WhatsApp forwards calling the API a “Covid19 sensor inserted into every phone” have been doing the rounds, alarming people and raising fears about smartphone companies violating individual privacy and data security without their consent.
However, Exposure Notification, a joint Privacy-Preserving Contact Tracing Project by Apple and Google, was created to assist with contact tracing, while prioritizing user safety and data privacy. The Exposure Notification API can assist local contact tracing apps, but only if you both turn on the API and download the contact tracing app. An API is only a software intermediary within a device, and it cannot act as a sensor by itself.
After obtaining consent from the user, the API creates a random ID for the device, which changes every 10–20 minutes to ensure privacy. The API then uses low-energy Bluetooth technology to exchange these IDs with other phones also using the API in its vicinity. If exposed to a device carried by a Covid19-positive person, the API will notify the user. This can only happen if Covid19-positive individuals have informed their contact tracing apps that they tested positive or are experiencing symptoms.
All of this is done without revealing anyone’s identity or location. Regarding the other privacy concerns, the API cannot track anyone’s location and only allows apps approved by the public health authority to work with it. Plus, these apps must meet the standard for privacy, security, and data use set in place by Google and Apple. Multiple countries, including Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Poland, and Germany, have developed contact-tracing apps based on the Exposure Notification protocols.
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As of now, the Indian Aarogya Setu app is incompatible with the Exposure Notification API, because the app collects location and contact data and therefore does not meet the API’s privacy standards. Talking about whether Aarogya Setu will incorporate tweaks to work better with the API, a Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology spokesperson told the Indian Express that, “For Google, no decision has been taken as of now.” The spokesperson added that the decision will happen after the Ministry checks the API’s requirements.
What can be said with certainty is that Google and Apple have not inserted a “Covid19 sensor” into our smartphones without consent. The API also does not violate any individual’s privacy or data security.