Your Apple iPhone Can Tell if You've Come Into Contact With COVID-19

Apple has unveiled a beta version of iPhone software that lets users opt-in to its contact-tracing system without needing a public health app.

When released to the public, it will mean COVID-19 tracing features are baked into the operating system and less reliant on additional software to inform users if they have potentially been in proximity with another person who logs a positive test.

The update, iOS 13.7, has been made available to developers and is expected to roll out to the public shortly, although a final date has not been confirmed.

In a patch note to developers on Wednesday, Apple explained: "iOS 13.7 lets you opt-in to the COVID-19 Exposure Notifications system without the need to download an app. System availability depends on support from your local public health authority."

Exposure Notifications—a partnership between Apple and Google, the gatekeepers of the App Store and Google Play Store—were always planned as a multi-phased rollout, according to a joint blog post unveiling the virus-tracking system in April.

At the time, they pitched a system to help contact tracing efforts by using Bluetooth technology. After opting in, a device sends out random strings of numbers that are picked up and logged by other phones, which are also broadcasting beacons.

If a person logged a positive COVID-19 test result into their public health authority app, it would be flagged with devices they came into contact with. The beacons are stored on the user's device, meaning location data is not sent to the tech firms.

For the first phase, Apple and Google developed a way for official public health apps to work and communicate with devices running Android and iOS.

Until now, any users who wanted to use the contact tracing system had to download the health authority app first, potentially reducing widespread adoption.

The iOS 13.7 update means the Bluetooth contact-tracing features are built in at the deeper operating system level. Once installed, the system now listens for the beacons without needing an app to be installed—but there are still barriers in place.

If a COVID-19 alert is sent, users who do not have the public health app installed will be prompted to download it, then advised of what steps they can take.

"If at some point a user is positively diagnosed with COVID-19, he or she can work with the health authority to report that diagnosis within the app, and with their consent their beacons will then be added to the positive diagnosis list. User identity will not be shared with other users, Apple and Google as part of this process," the firms said.

As reported by Bloomberg, users will still need the health agency in their region to have made an app that meets the tech firms' standards. Only six U.S. states are using the system: Alabama, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Virginia, and North Dakota.

iOS 14, the next major shakeup to iPhone software, is scheduled to be released this fall, promising new features and "a fresh look to the things you do most often."

An attendee looks at a new iPhone X during an Apple special event at the Steve Jobs Theatre on the Apple Park campus on September 12, 2017 in Cupertino, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty