Apple releases iOS 13.7 with support for new automatic COVID-19 notification system

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Apple on Tuesday released iOS 13.7, adding support for a new exposure notification system for powering COVID-19 tracking. The system is an extension of the existing coronavirus contact tracing efforts, but it removes the burden on states of having to build a dedicated app. News of the new software framework was first announced earlier today in a joint statement from Apple and Google.

This native support was expected, as it was announced when the exposure notification API — developed collaboratively between Apple and Google — was revealed in April. But at the time, we didn’t know exactly when it would arrive.

Here’s how it will work, from The Verge’s report on the announcement:

Under the new system, participating health departments will assemble a configuration file, allowing them to set their risk scores, redirect users to their specific health department website, and modify the recommendation for users who have been exposed. Once the configuration is complete, iOS and Android can automatically generate the necessary software, although the two operating systems handle the task differently. In Android, the configuration file will automatically generate a custom Android app, while iOS will incorporate the settings into its OS-level contact system.

More broadly, the OS-powered contact tracing system is designed to inform someone when they may have been in contact with another person later diagnosed with COVID-19, primarily through a complex BLE Beacon protocol. Support for the protocol was first added to iOS in May with the release of iOS 13.5. But at the time, any given state needed to have an app developed by a public health agency that used the API. Now, though, states can simply provide Apple and Google with the necessary information and the auto-generated software framework will take care of the rest.

Apple and Google made sure to clarify that existing apps, of which there are six, will continue to work, and support for interoperability between states is built into the new framework to allow for contact tracing state lines. The first official app supporting the exposure notification system debuted in Virginia earlier in August. The University of Alabama at Birmingham launched a closed pilot for an exposure notification app last month as well.

Image: Apple

“As the next step in our work with public health authorities on Exposure Notifications, we are making it easier and faster for them to use the Exposure Notifications System without the need for them to build and maintain an app,” Apple and Google said in a joint statement today. “Exposure Notifications Express provides another option for public health authorities to supplement their existing contact tracing operations with technology without compromising on the project’s core tenets of user privacy and security. Existing apps using the Exposure Notification API will be compatible with Exposure Notifications Express, and we are committed to supporting public health authorities that have deployed or are building custom apps.”

iOS 13.7 is available to download now.

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