Apple has released iOS 12.5 for older iPhone models today, bringing support for COVID-19 exposure notifications. This is a major change as it expands contact tracing to iPhones that don’t support iOS 14, including devices like the massively popular iPhone 6 series.

Here’s what Apple says about the release of iOS 12.5:

iOS 12.5 lets you opt-in to the COVID-19 Exposure Notifications system for your iPhone. System availability depends on support from your local public health authority. For more information see covid19.apple.com/contacttracing

Apple also adds that iOS 12.5 includes additional “security updates” and that the release is recommended for all users. Apple has also released watchOS 6.3 for older Apple Watch models today, bringing “important security updates” for users.

How do COVID-19 exposure notifications work?

When a user enables the feature, the device will regularly send out a beacon via Bluetooth that includes a random Bluetooth identifier. When two people are near each other, their phones will exchange and record these Bluetooth identifiers.

If someone tests positive for COVID-19, they can voluntarily report the positive test to the Exposure Notification application for their region. The Exposure Notification API will also likewise download a list of the keys for the beacons that have been verified as belonging to people confirmed positive for COVID-19, and check against that list. If there is a match, the user may be notified and advised on the next steps.

Privacy is a tentpole of the Exposure Notification API. Perhaps the biggest privacy protection in Apple and Google’s Exposure Notification API is that location data plays no part in how it works. The two companies say that these applications should collect as little data as possible, and location data is not needed for this Bluetooth-based approach.

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