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The End of an Era: Google Discontinues COVID-19 Exposure Notifications on Android

Andrew Singleton 08 Nov 2023

As the world continues to navigate the transitions from acute pandemic responses to more sustainable public health strategies, tech giants are recalibrating their tools and services to reflect this shift. A notable change comes from Google, which has officially removed the COVID-19 exposure notification system from Android settings—a feature that, at its peak, served as a beacon of modern-day contact tracing efforts.

Introduced in the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 exposure notification tool was the product of an unprecedented collaboration between Apple and Google. It represented a technological leap in public health strategy, utilizing the ubiquity of smartphones to bolster efforts to control the spread of the virus. The system employed Bluetooth technology to log encounters between individuals, creating an anonymous diary of proximities. If a user tested positive for COVID-19, they could consent to alert those they had been in close contact with, thus facilitating a more responsive and informed approach to self-isolation and testing.

The removal of this feature on Android comes several months after the backend support for the system, provided by the Association of Public Health Laboratories alongside Apple and Google, wound down. As the pandemic enters a new phase and the immediate need for such a tool appears to diminish, the tech companies have decided to retire the system. This marks a significant moment—a step back into a world where our smartphones are no longer on the lookout for potential exposures to the virus.

For users who had grown accustomed to the presence of exposure notifications, the change may require a small adjustment. On Android phones, the toggle to enable or disable these notifications was found under the Settings menu, within the Google services. Now, that option has vanished, silently signaling the end of the service. Meanwhile, on iOS, although the setting for exposure notifications still lingers, it stands as a relic—no longer capable of delivering alerts.

In conclusion, the withdrawal of the COVID-19 exposure notification feature from Android is a sign of the times. It reflects a broader societal shift towards living with COVID-19 rather than being in a constant state of emergency response to it. The collaboration between Apple and Google on this project demonstrated the potential for technology to play a significant role in public health initiatives. While the sunsetting of the exposure notifications might bring a sense of nostalgia for the solidarity of the pandemic's early days, it also ushers in a period of hope, where such pervasive measures are no longer deemed necessary. It will be interesting to watch how tech companies continue to adapt and evolve their offerings in the ever-changing landscape of global health challenges.