Coronavirus app troubles show rocky path without tech from Apple and Google
Apps tap the Bluetooth sensors in smartphones to detect encounters with those who test positive
Colombia has removed the contact-tracing feature in its official app for informing residents about the novel coronavirus after experiencing glitches, but aims to rebuild using potentially more reliable technology from Apple and Alphabet’s Google, a government official told Reuters.
The previously unreported moves by the Colombian government add to a growing number of accounts of countries adopting the Apple-Google technology and dropping alternatives aimed at helping them curtail outbreaks faster.
Contact tracing involves identifying, testing, and isolating people exposed to the virus before they spread it to others, something that governments globally have said is vital to keep their economies safely opened until a vaccine exists.
Apps that tap the Bluetooth sensors in smartphones to detect encounters with those who test positive could speed the process, say experts.
But some governments that planned to forge ahead with such apps without the help of the American technology giants have been forced to reverse course.
The head of Australia’s contact-tracing app told senators on Tuesday his team is moving to the Apple-Google technology over a glitchy internal solution, and the government agency behind the UK’s forthcoming app disclosed in a contract signed on Tuesday that it is asking engineers to test the Apple-Google system amid privacy concerns about its previously planned alternative.
The decisions have wide ramifications for using smartphone apps to log encounters between people to make it easier to find and alert those who crossed paths with a virus-carrier.
Apple and Google have said their Bluetooth-based technology will work more smoothly than alternatives and be trusted by consumers wary of government surveillance, with the companies banning government collection of app users’ GPS location and other personal data.
Apple and Google ban the use of location tracking in contact tracing apps
Several governments including France, the United Kingdom, and some US states contend Apple and Google’s rules to protect privacy prevent the robust data analysis needed to slow the virus’ spread.
But Colombia’s struggle to use alternative technology highlights the challenges that await governments reluctant to accept Apple’s and Google’s terms.
“There have certainly been several lessons learned in this process,” Colombia presidential adviser Victor Munoz told Reuters.
Roadblocks on iPhones
The Colombian government had felt well on its way with its CoronApp, which had been downloaded by 4.3 million people as of May 2 and also includes features to report symptoms and see where cases are located on a map.
But the CoronApp dropped its contact tracing feature last month just days after launching it.
Apple and Google, the leading makers of smartphone operating systems, allow government contact tracing apps to bypass their technology. But without it, iPhones do not send a readable Bluetooth signal while locked, a feature designed to prevent tracking and save battery life.
Contact tracing apps are useless unless at least about half of a population downloads them, and iPhone usage is too substantial in most countries to be ignored.
So CoronApp used alternative technology from Portuguese company HypeLabs, which sells networking technology to gaming apps and other businesses, that purports to overcome the iPhone Bluetooth limitation.
But Munoz said Colombia encountered multiple challenges with the contact tracing feature that relied on HypeLabs, including inaccuracies in logging contacts using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
Colombia needed a better way to “minimise the risk of generating unnecessary alerts” and decided to align CoronApp with the Apple-Google technology instead, Munoz added.
His team had met representatives of Apple and Google and was studying their technology, he said.
“It’s very important to us that we evaluate any alternative that can help the government make better decisions,” said Munoz.
HypeLabs said it remains in discussions with several other countries.
Randall Brugeaud, chief executive of Australia’s Digital Transformation Agency, said on Tuesday that the country’s COVIDSafe app increasingly struggles to log encounters the longer an iPhone remains locked.
“The big shift in the performance of Bluetooth connectivity will be the point we’re able to leverage the new Apple-Google Bluetooth management software,” he told senators.
Apple and Google last month began working on a joint solution to the connectivity problem between devices. But their offering, which will not be available for use until mid-May, restricts governments from amassing databases of people’s movements.
Colombia is one of several governments that has been hoping to gather such location data for use detecting coronavirus hotspots where businesses may need to be shut down or deep cleaned.
Apple and Google could fall short
Other developers are moving ahead to build contact tracing apps without Apple-Google technology. The Silicon Valley giants are authorising their tools only for government contact-tracing apps. But several developers told Reuters they are fielding requests from large businesses that want apps for their workplaces.
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“We’ve talked to a pro sports team, companies in the food supply chain, a car dealership, nonprofits,” said Jamison Day, founder of Safe2, an app that uses HypeLabs’ technology to enable exposure notification.
Using only Bluetooth also could fall short, experts said. The coronavirus can spread through shared objects such as tables, and two people who sit in the same spot an hour apart would not be picked up by the Apple-Google Bluetooth system, said Aarathi Prasad, a professor of computer science at Skidmore College.
Privacy activists have praised the protections introduced by Apple and Google, noting legitimate concerns exist about how data from contact tracing apps could be misused by governments.
Whether consumers trust elected officials or Apple and Google to better safeguard data collected by contact tracing remains a major question, with answers varying globally.
HypeLabs co-founder Carlos Lei said he continues to field inquiries from government officials, whom he declined to name, which have reservations about embracing Apple and Google.
“When it’s an entire world looking into a problem, it’s always better than having just one or two private companies looking into it,” Lei told Reuters.