iPhone COVID-19 Exposure Notifications Shut Down
I awoke this morning to a notification on my iPhone informing me that New York State’s COVID-19 exposure notifications had been turned off (see “A Tour of New York State’s COVID Alert NY App,” 2 October 2020). I never received a single notification about a possible exposure, which I suppose is good, and I had so completely forgotten about the joint Apple/Google system by October 2022 that I forgot to record my own positive test. An Apple consultant friend in Seattle told me today that he had received several notifications, but he is the first person I’ve spoken to who has seen any.
Although the privacy aspects of the Apple/Google system were seemingly well-thought-out (see “Apple and Google Partner for Privacy-Preserving COVID-19 Contact Tracing and Notification,” 10 April 2020, and “Former Apple Engineer: Here’s Why I Trust Apple’s COVID-19 Notification Proposal,” 11 May 2020), my understanding is that the system failed to attract sufficient users to make it effective. Many individuals didn’t want to know if they had been exposed because they couldn’t afford to quarantine, and distrust of tech giants, government, and science in general hurt adoption. I suspect we’ll never learn how many people signed up.
I was much more impressed with the NOVID approach (see “NOVID Provides COVID-19 Early Warning System,” 21 January 2021), which had the potential to let individuals assess their personal risk and could have been a valuable tool for mapping the spread of other infectious diseases. It also failed to attract enough users—only 14 people ever signed up in my ZIP code, and most were related to me.
It’s sad that a service like TikTok can amass over 1 billion users while so many people shy away from technologies that could have reduced the death toll of over 1.1 million people in the US and 6.9 million worldwide.
Got my notice from California this morning, as well. I too never received any notifications, but rarely left the house, so minimum opportunity.
I turned these notifications off a few months ago. I never received one, never heard of anyone else who did, and it ended up being a battery drain. I honestly wonder if the major issue was that people who did get COVID-19 often never officially reported it. That said, I still haven’t had COVID-19, so maybe it truly was that I was never exposed to anyone.
I received 2. The first was in a very small town in the corner of WA state. I’d attended a wedding but the exposure did not happen at the wedding as my wife did not attend the wedding but she also got the same exposure notification, so we knew the exposure had to have occurred in our hotel. The second was at a Mariner’s game, which was not surprising.
Thanks for the subtle shout-out, @ace.
The CDC stopped advising contact tracing in February 2022. By then, the combination of the explosive contagiousness of the omicron variant and the availability of vaccines meant that the real risk was immunity status rather than exposure. Adam will probably guess what I have to say next. I am not surprised that even a really well thought out digital alert system failed. I think a call from a government official is much more likely to move someone to take an action than a buzz in the pocket.
I imagine most people will never miss it. It was never implemented in my state at all and so was 100% unusable for me. Several states never bothered to implement it, making a ridiculous patchwork across the US that would make tracking impossible across state lines. It was a great idea early on, but without full nationwide implementation, it was doomed from the start.
It may have been doomed from the start, but I sure did spend a lot of cycles studying up on the trust front and deciding whether or not to participate. Never got a notification. But now that the dooming is complete, is the OS going to magically remove it in a future update? Or do I need to do things to make it go away? Or are we keeping it in case it might it be useful for the next global pandemic?
International footnote: Here in Germany, the aforementioned joint Apple/Google exposure notification framework has been used as a basis for the national COVID warning app. The overall effect on the pandemic is regarded as limited, but existent. With over 40 million downloads, the app likely reached about half of the German population. According to this [government report (Corona-Warn-App in hibernation mode | Federal Government)], 240 million test results were provided by users, nine million of which were positive. (To achieve that, 270 laboratories and 20,000 test centres were connected.)
Regarding the notifications frequency: in the metropolitan areas like Berlin, the app showed many people a very frequent „red“ = high contact risk during the high-incidence stages. (The app used a proprietary algorithm taking into account proximity and duration of contact to calculate overall risk.)
The app was at the very least a rare example of a successful state-sponsored highly complex technical project (with what seems virtually unlimited budget). It was also an open source project closely documented on Github and a blog. The engineers worked closely with both Apple and Google and smartphone manufacturers to support a broad range of devices. In line with the end of device contact tracing, developers now announced the app will go into ‚hibernation‘.
The Apple/Google approach was also used in the UK NHS Covid app, and scientists have estimated that it saved 10,000 lives in its first year.
The UK Government initially tried to develop its own app, which would not have preserved privacy like the Apple-Google one, but they had to abandon this (as many predicted would happen).
Politico.eu has an interesting article from May 2020 on the way the privacy debate developed around Europe.
In my state, the COVID-19 exposure app went live in June 2021. At that time, there had been 661,294 cumulative positive tests reported. The app shut down in May 2023, when there had been 2,037,701 cumulative reported positive tests, so there were roughly 1,376,000 positive tests in those two years. The state says that the exposure notification app had 89,000 users report their positive test using the app, or only 6.4% of cases; 1.8 million users of the app were notified.
I imagine that there were a number of those 1.8 million people who prevented more serious infection or death because of those reports by the early notification. But imagine how many more hospitalizations and deaths could have been prevented if more people had taken the time to report their positive test result?.
I hope that this is the case. I also hope that it will be a long time before it is necessary.
Adam wrote: “It’s sad that a service like TikTok can amass over 1 billion users while so many people shy away from technologies that could have reduced the death toll of over 1.1 million people in the US and 6.9 million worldwide.”
I agree. Perhaps it is because Red China’s PLA & MSS were able to disguise their TikTok data collection under a shell that was fun to use while the exposure app was in-your-face data collection? Or maybe it was just that people were overloaded with all the COVID doomsaying, statistics, etc., they did not want an app dedicated to it no matter how well intentioned?
I live in a New York City apartment complex that has almost 300 units. I know that a number of residents have had Covid, but although both I and my husband signed up for exposure notifications, neither of us has received anything resembling a notification.
Thanks for calling attention to this. Actually, at this point Arizona is the only state that is still using it. The underlying technology does not depend on location, so technically it still works everywhere. We shared some more info on it here Exposure Notifications in the US after Public Health Emergency
Fascinating! Do you have any data on what percentage of the population in Arizona used WeHealth Notify?
Arizona took a staggered approach, starting with just universities for the pilot phase which lasted a long time. It was opened up to more counties within the state only recently. Arizona hasn’t shared absolute data in the aggregate but Q1 2023 data shows that compliance remains high with 72% users reporting following more than 2 recommendations when exposed; and 70% users who got notified report being of age 50 or older; and 37% being immuno-compromised or at risk of severe disease. So the system continues to provide valuable information to the right people at the right time. This is why Arizona has decided to keep it on at least through end of 2024. And to keep improving it as part of preparedness for future threats. The solution is designed for all of US; so it can be used by anyone anywhere as it will also send notifications when community levels in local counties change. Wehealth's Post Exposure Survey Results for Jan-Mar 2023
Also not implemented in my state of Illinois but it came alive during travels north to Wisconsin.
It wasn’t a matter of “fun” or even public relations.
It failed to be effective because the protocol was too distributed to scale well.
Remember, two independent keys were required to unlock Covid-19 exposure notifications to participating individuals.
First, each state had the option of turning it on for that state’s Covid-19 reporting; it was off by default.
Second, each individual had the option of turning it on to be notified whether they’d been exposed to a person whose data was fed into a participating state’s public health data repository. (So, as an individual who had opted in traveled among participating/non-participating states, geolocation would turn the notifications on/off.)
In my opinion, it was a brilliant cryptographic protocol that respected everyone’s privacy. But, each state health department was a linchpin AND each individual was opted out by default. How could it possibly succeed?
It failed because a state’s participation was required in order for its residents to effectively opt in. In effect, each state could deny their resident’s choice to opt in.
I never received a notification of exposure. On one occasion, I tested positive after becoming symptomatic (Jan 2023). I opened Exposure Notification so I could tell it I was positive, and it could warn my contacts, only to find that I couldn’t do that. Only the health authority could issue a token, and as I was home very sick, in no mood to go out, or to expose others to my symptoms, I was forced to close the app.
I realize not everyone thought it was good, but I thought it ingenious (especially the heroic effort Apple and Google made to cooperate on it). What a shame that Americans are so individualistic that they’re unwilling to adopt something like this which preserved privacy while allowing us to act unselfishly and protect each other.
Remove the blockage to self-reporting and turn it on at the next epidemic, please!
I wonder if there is any evidence that it made any difference at all in the United States. It wasn’t available here in Texas.
In the UK many people used the ZOE Symptom Tracker developed by University College London with Stanford, Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital: Latest Daily UK COVID-19 Data: Vaccines, Cases, Trends | ZOE I still use the app (both IOS and Android) daily to get an accurate assessment of the number of people estimated to be currently infected in the UK. You can clearly see the current trend on a chart and drill down to your own local region too. 1.15 million people are currently predicted to have Covid in the UK.
In Ireland we had widespread uptake of the equivalent app. It was quite useful in providing county demographic data, you could see when local towns had numbers surge.
Glad this is all on the wane I have to say, though still keeping an eye out around my elderly mother.
Join the discussion in the TidBITS Discourse forum