SAN FRANCISCO - The smartphone in your pocket may soon let you know if you’ve been exposed to COVID-19.

As communities around the world consider the first steps toward reopening, there is fear that once people begin moving, the virus will spread. But COVID-19 presents unique challenges to stop its spread. Some who are infected never had symptoms; those who do fall ill can spread the disease for a day or two before experiencing a cough or body chills, some of the common COVID-19 symptoms.

Apple, Google and others are working on a plan to use smartphones to inform those who have crossed paths with an infected person. They call it “exposure notification.” 

A digital tool for health authorities

Next month, Apple, the maker of the iPhone, and Google, whose Android operating system powers the majority of smartphones in the world, will release software tools that will allow devices to exchange information via Bluetooth. Public health authorities and their partners will build apps that they will use to notify people if they’ve been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the virus.

But will it work? There are many hurdles ahead. Many people will need to download the app for it to work properly, and many may want to be reassured that their privacy won’t be compromised, their data won’t be hacked. And there are many technical challenges. For example, if the app reduces the phone’s ability to function.

“This is complicated because it's untested speculative technology,” said Harper Reed, an entrepreneur and former chief technology officer for the Obama campaign. “If it doesn't work, we can put people in danger. But if it does work, early notification of exposure can dramatically help our communities limit and survive COVID-19.”

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Where does the data live?

Around the world, there’s a debate about technology and policy. Should government health authorities collect data or should the data live on smartphones? Apple, Google and some groups in the U.S. insist the data should live on phones — to protect people’s privacy but also to make the data less of a target for hackers.

Some governments are working on apps that use global positioning system (GPS) data. The Apple and Google technology does not. 

If the app is private and secure, people are more likely to use it, said Henry de Valence with the TCN Coalition, a coalition of app developers and others working on the technology and policies underlying exposure notification.

“People want to be able to help out and contain the spread of disease,” he said. “And so if you give them an option that poses no risk to them, but allows them to help themselves and others, people are just going to opt into that without having to be required to.”

There are many unknowns still about how an exposure notification app will work and whether it will see widespread adoption. But there’s hope that technology may play a role in slowing down the virus’s spread.

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