When Gov. Jared Polis began his regularly scheduled press conference on Tuesday, September 8, he was flanked on his right by Brittaney Bowlen, a top executive for the Broncos, and on his left by Sarah Tuneberg, who leads Colorado’s COVID-19 innovation response team. Six months had passed since Colorado announced its first positive test of the coronavirus, and the governor donned a Denver Broncos mask as he and Bowlen delivered exciting news for football fans: Empower Field at Mile High would allow 5,700 fans to attend the team’s week three game against old foe Tom Brady and his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The news that would impact far more Coloradans, though, came from Tuneberg, who announced a contact tracing partnership between the state of Colorado and tech giants Google and Apple. By the end of September, Tuneberg said, any resident with a smartphone will be able to activate a service or download an app that will notify them (and anyone they’ve been in contact with) about any potential exposure to COVID-19.

The free Google-Apple Exposure Notification Service, or EN Express, will first be available to iOS users (anyone with an Apple product) via a system upgrade at the end of the month. A few days later, an app should be available for Android users to download. Tuneberg stressed that the service is optional: No phone will automatically make these updates, and users will have to opt in on their own. She also reiterated that the technology is secure and anonymous.

“There is no personal information that is tracked, shared, or communicated with anyone else,” she says. “It is an anonymized experience. We really have emphasized and worked together with our tech partners to ensure the upmost privacy.”

Here’s how it works: Via Bluetooth, phones share tokens—in this case, encrypted series of numbers and letters—that carry no personal information other than a way to identify the phone. After 14 days, tokens are deleted from a public health server. If, however, someone with EN Express tests positive for COVID-19 during that time, the public health department will give him or her a key to enter in the phone. That key then activates all the tokens it had exchanged in the previous 14 days and delivers anyone in close contact (who also was using the service) a push notification saying, essentially: You might have been exposed, call your local public health agency.

The technology is relatively late in coming to the United States, Polis said at the press conference. He noted state officials have been monitoring similar programs in countries like South Korea and Ireland, as well as technologies developed by states like Utah and Virginia. When EN Express launches here, Colorado will be one of the first states in the country to deploy the new technology.

Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard is a Denver-based writer and a former editor on 5280's digital team.