Google, Apple release jointly developed API for Covid-19 tracing apps

Joanna Estrada
May 23, 2020

The CDC calls it "part of a multi-pronged approach to fight the COVID-19 pandemic" - but that assumes buy-in from people. Each user can decide to opt into the notifications or not and the system doesn't collect or use location data from devices.

If an app user is diagnosed with COVID-19, it is up to them whether to report it in the app. This is a brief description of what it is and how it works. The COVID-19 Exposure Notification API went live yesterday and it is available for public health authorities worldwide.

So far, 23 countries have requested access to this system. While countries like America, Germany and Switzerland are embracing this new API for their own apps, other authorities have been less than accepting. "Rather public health agencies will incorporate the API into their own apps that people install".

An example of such apps is the TraceTogether, which was developed by Singapore's Ministry of Health (MOH) and Government Technology Agency (GovTech). Alabama and SC are the others. Twenty-two foreign countries have also signed agreements to use the technology, known as "Exposure Notifications".

Even thought Google and Apple are involved the app would be operated through the Alabama Public Health Department. But in short, this is how it works. Random Bluetooth identifiers are used to indicate proximity and no identifiable information is shared or logged. It is just a big chain of letters and numbers whose sole objective is to be different from others, to be only. A recent study by Oxford University predicts that a 10 per cent to 20 per cent uptake is enough to have a positive effect on limiting the spread of the virus.

Your phone transmits this unique identification string via Bluetooth to any other nearby phone.

Apart from this, the app could also be tricked into allowing access to internal files on the user's phone. This was done by using new code from the UK's National Health Service app that "improves the COVIDSafe app's Bluetooth performance on iOS devices, including when the device is locked".

While there are a few platforms that have developed such solutions in Nigeria, the awareness and adoption rate has been poor.

If there is a match, your iPhone will display a warning.

Many of these applications attempt to address many of these privacy concerns by simply notifying the app users themselves (instead of the employer or public health agency), to encourage responsible behavior. Once an app is ready, you'll need to change your privacy settings for it to work.

Then there's the potential for abuse, the possibility of false positives and false negatives, and the chance that privacy protections will be permanently weakened if health tracking technology gets put into place without an accompanying legal framework. This struggle between technology and government comes at a time when public confidence in both is at an all-time low. Their app examined whether an individual had been within two meters of someone with COVID-19 in the past 30 minutes. This is not something that is only enabled for everyone by default.

Know that other phones get there is no information about you, nor does your phone receive information about them.

And this aims to cut the risk of either hackers or the authorities using the database of who met whom and for how long for other purposes.

All positive ID matches with people they have been in contact with occur locally, on users' devices.

The limited capacities of these application updates are due to the restrictions imposed by these technology companies on developers which are not uncommon.

Smittestopp, which has a development budget of about $5 million, accesses Global Positioning System location and requires phone numbers.

Above all, the tech companies-especially Apple, which holds a certain public trust-should double down on promoting contact tracing this summer.

Contact-tracing systems, both human and automated, are meant to help countries ease their pandemic lockdowns while keeping infections in check. So for users in the United States, this still does nothing.

A decentralised architecture keeps the information about whom a person has been in contact with on the smartphone. We reviewed this on Orbital, our regular modern technology podcast, which you can register for using Apple Podcasts or RSS, download the episode, or simply struck the play switch listed below. More details on the technology can be found here.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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