Apple And Google Set To Release Coronavirus API Amidst Privacy Furore

Google and Apple may release their coronavirus contact-tracing API as soon as Thursday, as the NHS considers whether to adopt the “decentralised” model used by the two smartphone makers.

Contact-tracing systems, both human and automated, are intended to help countries ease their pandemic lockdowns while keeping infections in check.

Google and Apple have been working on coronavirus contact-tracing technology that is to be built into both Android and iOS devices, allowing apps to use it while consuming minimal power.

But the UK and France have been amongst the most prominent countries rejecting the model favoured by Google and Apple, preferring to use a “centralised” approach in which data is processed on state-controlled servers.

Image credit: World Health Organisation

Native API

The “decentralised” model carries out all data processing on the devices themselves, allowing for increased privacy, while the NHS said centralised data would help it track infection patterns.

But the system is also looking into the possibility of switching to Google and Apple’s model, and hired a Swiss IT development firm to “investigate the complexity, performance and feasibility” of implementing Google and Apple’s API, according to a Financial Times report earlier this month that cited a contract with Zuhlke Engineering.

The NHS’ digital arm, NHSX, said at the time that it had been working with Apple and Google all along and that it was “right and normal” to continue to refine the app.

The companies’ API could be released as soon as Thursday, the BBC reported, citing an unnamed source, as governments hasten to put coronavirus contact-tracing measures into place.

The NHS is currently testing an initial version of its contact-tracing app on the Isle of Wight, and is planning to test a second version there before proceeding to a nationwide release.

Contact-tracing apps use Bluetooth to sense who a user has been in proximity with for a significant length of time, and then alert people when one of their contacts develops Covid-19.

Different countries are implementing the technology in significantly different ways, however.

The NHS’ app is designed to send out alerts based solely on a questionnaire about the user’s symptoms, creating the potential for false positives.

False positives

The first version of the app asks only two questions – whether the user has a persistent cough or a high temperature – while an upcoming version is expected to add further symptoms, such as the loss of sense of taste or smell.

There is no way of entering the result of a coronavirus test, either positive or negative.

The NHS says triggering alerts based on symptoms allows for quicker results, since obtaining Covid-19 test results can take several days.

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) said the app’s centralised model would allow those abusing the system to be caught.

Germany’s app, by contrast, triggers alerts based solely on a positive test result.

According to documention of Germany’s Corona-Warn-App published on GitHub, the approach is designed to “avoid misuse”.

Users who test positive will be given a verification code to enter before the app anonymously triggers an alert to the user’s contacts.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week that SAP and Deutsche Telekom, which are developing the app, were waiting for Apple and Google’s API to be finalised before completing their work on Corona-Warn-App.

‘Positive feedback’

She said there would be a “much higher level of acceptance” for a decentralised app using the API.

But the Department of Health said adoption of the centralised NHS app had been high in Isle of Wight trials.

“In a matter of days, more than 50,000 people have downloaded the app with overwhelmingly positive feedback,” the department said in an official statement.

“But as with all new technologies, there will be issues that need to be resolved in how it works, which is why it is being trialled before a national rollout.”

Health secretary Matt Hancock had earlier planned for the NHS app to be rolled out across England in Mid-May, but the government on Monday declined to specify a timeframe, saying only that it now plans “to roll out the app across the country in the coming weeks”.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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