Data Doctors: What’s that ‘Exposure Notification’ on my smartphone?

Q: Is Google automatically signing Android users up for their contact tracing system?

There has been a lot of misinformation posted on social media as it pertains to an update for certain Android phones that included a setting for “Exposure Notifications.”

As I previously wrote, Apple and Google teamed up to create a universal contact tracing platform that would work across both operating systems.

What both iPhone and Android smartphone users are starting to see is the first steps to make contact tracing possible, which is called an API, or application programming interface.

Does my smartphone have it?

For Android users, seeing this new option depends on which phone you’re using along with which update you have installed. Each device manufacturer has to create their own version of the Android updates, which is why it varies by device.

If it has been added to your Android device, you will find it by going to Settings and tapping Google (services and preferences).

For iPhone users that have upgraded to iOS 13.5, they’ll see this option under Settings > Privacy > Health.

In both cases, the option that has been added only works if the user downloads an app that takes advantage of the feature. Despite what you may be seeing from outraged social media posts, neither company is automatically tracking your movements or forcing your device to engage in contact tracing.

Even if you choose to download an authorized contact-tracing app from a local health authority, you still have total control as to when and where it will work.

The whole process for tracing in the Apple/Google API relies on your Bluetooth radio, so if it’s not turned on, it’s useless.

Which states are planning on using it?

Although many states have announced that they are exploring the possibilities, the only states that I am aware of that specifically said they will leverage this update to smartphones are Alabama, North Dakota, South Carolina and Virginia.

Some states are experimenting with their own platforms that also require users to download and install a specific app to their smartphones.

The challenge for the US

Contact tracing has shown to be effective in containing outbreaks in other countries, but there’s an extremely important element that allows them to be effective: a single platform.

As it stands today, based on where you live will determine which app you should download, which means, as a country, any attempts to create contact tracing will be fragmented at best.

If everyone is using a different app or platform, it’s significantly less useful.

As an example, if you live in one state and travel to another, unless you download that locality’s app, you won’t be part of their tracing system, which diminishes the accuracy of every system.

Other challenges include false positives (two people can be close, but separated by a wall or glass panel) and false reporting of infections for malicious intent.

The bottom line

For the time being, there’s nothing to be concerned about if your smartphone has the “Exposure Notification” option as you are in total control.

Ken Colburn is founder and CEO of Data Doctors Computer Services. Ask any tech question on Facebook or Twitter.

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