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Apple and Google’s coronavirus contact tracing app scores big win in Europe

Published Apr 27th, 2020 6:50AM EDT
Coronavirus News
Image: Zach Epstein, BGR

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  • Apple and Google have made several improvements to their coronavirus contact tracing app that will be available on iPhone and Android in various countries.
  • The “exposure notification” app now has new features that protect user privacy even better than initial measures. Similarly, the app has new provisions meant to reduce the number of false positives.
  • Germany has agreed to use the Apple-Google decentralized contact tracing app, while France and the UK still want to collect more data from phones.
  • Visit BGR’s homepage for more stories.

Apple and Google developed a new API for iPhone and Android that would allow app developers to create contact tracing apps for the novel coronavirus. The Apple-Google approach relies on Bluetooth connectivity between devices to determine the risk of exposure of an individual to a person who tested positive to COVID-19. The object of such apps is for medical systems to be able to perform quick contact tracing and react accordingly. Patients can be isolated earlier and tested for COVID-19 with the help of such apps. But, crucially, participation is voluntary. It’s up to iPhone and Android users to opt-in. When they do, their privacy will be protected, and neither Apple nor Google will collect any data about users. It’ll all stay on their phones.

Several governments in Europe have been working on their own contact tracing app as well, some starting similar initiatives before Apple and Google announced their joint effort. But not all countries went for a privacy-friendly approach. The UK, France, and Germany all wanted Apple and Google to make certain exceptions that would allow these governments to run their own contact tracing app, and collect more user data. Germany announced over the weekend that it’ll drop its requests and instead follow Apple and Google’s guidelines, just as the two tech giants announced new changes for the app that will improve user privacy.

Apple and Google on Friday disclosed various changes to their coronavirus contact tracing initiative, addressing the concerns of privacy advocates.

The initiative is now referred to as “exposure notification” instead of “contact tracing,” a name that better describes the functionality of the app. These apps will notify users of potential exposure, and it’ll be up to the user and authorities to perform the actual contact tracing efforts.

Apple and Google built additional privacy protections in the app to make accidental or intentional identification of users impossible. The keys will be generated randomly, making it impossible for someone to guess them. Bluetooth metadata will be encrypted, and exposure time will be rounded up to five minutes to make it impossible for someone to identify users.

The API will also register the Bluetooth system level to avoid false positives. Bluetooth system travels several tens of feet and can penetrate walls. The farther away you are from someone, the less likely you’d be to get infected, especially if you’re living in different apartments. Without taking into account Bluetooth power levels, the app would still give you a warning.

Germany on Sunday announced that it will no longer pursue its own contact tracing app. Instead, it’ll rely on the Apple-Google approach, Reuters reported. Chancellery Minister Helge Braun and Health Minister Jens Spahn said in a joined statement that the country will go for the “decentralized” approach that Apple and Google are championing.

“This app should be voluntary, meet data protection standards and guarantee a high level of IT security,” they said. “The main epidemiological goal is to recognize and break chains of infection as soon as possible.”

Germany joins other countries who’ve worked on similar, privacy-friendly, contact tracing apps. Austria, Switzerland, and Estonia developed a decentralized protocol called DP-3T (Decentralised Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing) that will work with the Apple-Google API. Users would be able to share their phone numbers to pass relevant information about their condition. But this would be part of the app, not the system architecture, and the apps will not contain location data.

A contact tracing system where the app would collect more data, such as the UK and France propose, would require the app to be working in the foreground, so the Bluetooth connection stays active at all times, especially on iPhone. This would not only kill battery life fast but would also present security issues. Stealing a phone whose display isn’t set to automatically lock would allow thieves to bypass some of the safety features set in place to reduce smartphone theft.

The NHS said in a blog post on Friday that a future version of its contact tracing app would let users provide more data to help authorities “identify hotspots and trends.” Having such capabilities built into an app means the app can pass on information to servers, which can gather more data than the scope of the contact tracing app.

Privacy advocates will say that allowing governments to collect more data from the simple Bluetooth “handshake” that occurs between phones could help them create various surveillance initiatives beyond the need for tracking the spread of COVID-19. Moreover, should western democracies have their way with Apple and Google, then other countries might have similar requests in place.

Apple and Google aren’t willing to budge, and Germany’s quick change of mind is probably an indication that France and the UK will play by Apple and Google’s rules as well.

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.