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Switzerland is the first to use Apple-Google coronavirus contact tracing technology

Published May 27th, 2020 7:31AM EDT
Coronavirus Contact Tracing
Image: Erik Pendzich/Shutterstock

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  • The first coronavirus contact tracing app based on the Apple-Google COVID-19 spread API launched in Switzerland to some categories of users.
  • Latvia will roll out nationwide its own app based on the standard as soon as it receives approval for the App Store and Google Play.
  • Other countries and US states are working on similar apps based on the Apple-Google standard for iPhone and Android, as there’s an increase need to manage the spread of COVID-19 and warn people of potential exposure to the virus.

Apple and Google inked a historic partnership a few weeks ago, to develop a common standard for apps that can allow governments to conduct sophisticated contact tracing campaigns that could help them contain the novel coronavirus outbreak. COVID-19 is more contagious than we would have hoped, having infected more than 5.7 million people worldwide as of Wednesday morning, and claiming the lives of more than 353,000 patients. Countries including South Korea, Iceland, Germany, Vietnam, and New Zealand excelled at testing and contact tracing in previous months. But as the curve has been flattened in most places and social distancing measures are loosened, there are plenty of second wave worries. New outbreaks are possible, and sustained testing and spread tracing campaigns will be required to prevent widespread transmission. Tools like the Apple-Google API that can be used in tracing apps are definitely needed to increase the scale of contact tracing well beyond what human tracers would be able to achieve. The first country to launch an app based on the Apple-Google standard is Switzerland, with Latvia and other European countries to follow soon.

The Swiss coronavirus contact-tracing app will initially be available to members of the Swiss army, hospital workers, and civil servants. The app is called SwissCovid and will soon be available to the general population, per BBC.

The Apple-Google API gives developers continuous access to Bluetooth on iPhone and Android, as well as several security and privacy features meant to secure the identity of users and prevent data collection. Apps based on the API will allow phones to talk to establish a link via Bluetooth, and store record of that interaction. In all this process, only an anonymized ID of each interaction record is stored on a database, which is why the Apple-Google way is the most private contact tracing technology proposed so far.

When a person confirms their positive COVID-19 diagnosis inside the app, the phone will ping that database. The other phones will keep downloading the same database and look for positives. That’s how they could tell you that you may have been in the proximity of a person infected with the novel coronavirus at some point in the past two weeks, and you’d be warned that some action might be required.

Apple-Google coronavirus contact tracing app concept for iPhone Image source: Apple and Google

Apple’s app uses a decentralized model because no authority would be able to collect any data about the users. Centralized apps, like the one the UK has been piloting, and which has seen plenty of criticism lately with experts finding seven security flaws in the app already. France is looking to implement its own contact tracing app, one that would not use the Apple-Google APIs.

Members of parliament will have to debate and approve the Swiss app before it’s available to the public. But 70% of Swiss residents already support the initiative, BBC notes.

Latvia is on the verge of launching its Apturi Covid app as soon as Thursday, as the app doesn’t depend on a vote in parliament. Apple has approved it, and Google needs to do the same for the app to show up in the Play Store. Latvia could become the first country to roll out a COVID-19 tracing app based on Apple-Google that would be available nationwide. “Of course we would be very happy to be the first [national launch], but the most important thing is to help our inhabitants fights the virus,” a Latvian spokesperson told BBC.

“The developers believe that reliance on this standard will ensure widespread adoption and also compatibility over time with contact tracing apps around the world that are also expected to adopt the same exposure notification framework,” the app developers told Reuters earlier this week. Indeed, the API would allow contact tracing across borders, which could be beneficial for large countries like the US and the entire European Union.

Apple and Google already confirmed that some 22 countries and some US states have already requested access to the API.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.