Apple’s COVID-19 exposure notification API: What it is and how it works in iOS 13.5

In the release notes for iOS 13.5, you may have noticed a somewhat ominous message. Apple says that the update, “introduces the Exposure Notification API to support COVID-19 contact tracing apps from public health authorities.”

That sounds an awful lot like it’s going to allow the government to track you and invade your privacy! Fortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Contact tracing and exposure notification are important tools to help limit the spread of COVID-19 and enable the easing of lockdown restrictions, but only if they are widespread. 

To that end, Apple and Google got together back in April to develop technology that would notify you if you may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 without compromising your identity, location, or personal information.

The result is an API for both Android phones and iPhones that will allow state health agencies to produce apps to notify the public about possible COVID-19 exposure. This is a brief overview of what it is and how it works.

What is the Exposure Notification API?

An API is an “application programming interface.” It’s basically a way for app developers to request functions provided by the operating system. As an example, a mapping app may want to know your location so it can show where you are on a map. The application doesn’t have to have a bunch of code to talk to the GPS hardware in your phone, it just calls a function from the iOS location API.

Apple and Google have built a set of functions into Android and iOS that developers can use to help notify people when they might have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

This API is not available to all developers, but rather only to official government health agencies around the world, and those apps will have a lot of restrictions placed upon them. Here in the United States, that likely means that an app using the API would have to come from your state Department of Health or equivalent agency.

exposure example apple Apple

A sample example image showing what an exposure notification might look like. This will vary depending on the app.

At the time of this writing, there are only three states that have publicly stated they will use the API: Alabama, South Carolina, and North Dakota. Everything is moving quickly, and that will likely change. Bear in mind this is a global technology program, and other countries’ health agencies may use the API, too.