Coronavirus Application Problems In Colombia Show Difficult Path Without Apple, Google Technology

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(Reuters) – Colombia has removed contact tracing from its official app to notify residents of the new coronavirus after encountering problems, but aims to rebuild using potentially more reliable technology from Apple Inc and Alphabet Inc Google, a government official told Reuters.

The CoronApp-Colombia mobile app, which the Colombian government has asked residents to download to learn more about coronavirus disease (COVID-19), conduct health surveys and potentially enable more effective contact tracking, is view on a phone in Oakland, California, United States. in this photo taken on May 6, 2020. REUTERS / Paresh Dave / Illustration

The measures not announced by the Colombian government are adding to an increasing number of accounts from countries adopting Apple-Google technology and abandoning alternatives aimed at helping them to reduce epidemics more quickly.

Contact tracing involves identifying, testing and isolating people exposed to the virus before transmitting it to others, which governments around the world believe is vital to keeping their economies open safely until ‘that a vaccine exists. Applications that use Bluetooth sensors on smartphones to detect encounters with those who are positive could speed up the process, experts say.

But some governments that planned to go ahead with such applications without the help of the US tech giants have been forced to backtrack. The head of the Australian contact search application told senators on Tuesday that his team was switching to Apple-Google technology on a glitchy internal solution, and the government agency behind the next British application revealed in a contract signed Tuesday that ‘It asked engineers to test the Apple-Google system amid privacy concerns regarding its previously planned alternative.

The decisions have wide ramifications for using smartphone applications to record meetings between people to facilitate the search and alert of those who have come across a virus carrier.

Apple and Google have said that their Bluetooth technology will work more easily than the alternatives and that consumers will be wary of government surveillance, with companies banning government collection of the GPS position and other personal data from users of the application. Several governments, including France, the United Kingdom, and some U.S. states, argue that Apple and Google’s privacy policies prevent robust data analysis needed to slow the spread of the virus.

But Colombia’s struggle to use alternative technologies highlights the challenges facing governments reluctant to accept the terms of Apple and Google.

“There have certainly been several lessons learned in this process,” Colombian presidential adviser Victor Munoz told Reuters.

ROADBLOCKS ON IPHONES

The Colombian government felt good on its way with its CoronApp, which was downloaded by 4.3 million people on May 2 and also includes functionality to report symptoms and see where cases are located on a map.

But CoronApp dropped its contact tracking functionality last month just days after it launched.

Apple and Google, the leading manufacturers of operating systems for smartphones, allow government contact tracking applications to bypass their technology. But without it, iPhones do not send a readable Bluetooth signal when locked, a feature designed to prevent tracking and save battery power.

Contact tracking apps are useless unless at least about half of the population downloads them, and iPhone usage is too important in most countries to be ignored.

CoronApp therefore used an alternative technology from the Portuguese company HypeLabs, which sells networking technology to gaming applications and other businesses, which claims to overcome the iPhone’s Bluetooth limitation.

But Munoz said Colombia has encountered many challenges with the contact tracing function that relies on HypeLabs. Colombia needed a better way to “minimize the risk of generating unnecessary alerts” and decided to align CoronApp with Apple-Google technology instead, said Munoz, without giving details of the problems.

HypeLabs said it is in talks with several other countries.

Randall Brugeaud, chief executive of Australia’s Digital Transformation Agency, said on Tuesday that the country’s COVIDSafe app was finding it increasingly difficult to record meetings as long as an iPhone remained locked.

“The big change in the performance of Bluetooth connectivity will be the point on which we can take advantage of the new Apple-Google Bluetooth management software,” he told senators.

Apple and Google began work last month on a joint solution to the problem of connectivity between devices. But their offer, which won’t be available until mid-May, prevents governments from building databases on the movement of people.

Colombia is one of many governments hoping to collect such location data to detect coronavirus hotspots where businesses may need to be shut down or cleaned up thoroughly.

APPLE-GOOGLE COULD FALL SHORT

Other developers are going ahead to create contact tracking apps without Apple-Google technology. The giants of Silicon Valley only allow their tools for government contact tracing applications. But several developers have told Reuters that they are responding to requests from large companies for applications for their workplaces.

“We spoke with a professional sports team, food supply chain companies, a car dealership, and non-profit organizations,” said Jamison Day, founder of Safe2, an app that uses HypeLabs technology to activate the exposure notification.

Using Bluetooth only could also fail, experts said. Coronavirus can spread through shared objects such as tables, and two people who are seated in the same place at an hour apart would not be picked up by the Apple-Google Bluetooth system, said Aarathi Prasad, professor of IT at Skidmore College.

Privacy activists praised the protections introduced by Apple and Google, noting that there are legitimate concerns about how data from contact search applications could be misused by governments.

The CoronApp-Colombia mobile app, which the Colombian government has asked residents to download to learn more about coronavirus disease (COVID-19), conduct health surveys and potentially enable more effective contact tracking, is view on a phone in Oakland, California, United States. in this photo taken on May 6, 2020. REUTERS / Paresh Dave / Illustration

Whether consumers trust elected officials or Apple and Google to better protect the data collected by contact tracing remains a major question, with answers varying worldwide.

HypeLabs co-founder Carlos Lei said he continues to respond to inquiries from government officials, whom he declined to name, who have reservations about the adoption of Apple and Google.

“When an entire world is looking at a problem, it’s always better than having just one or two private companies looking at it,” Lei told Reuters.

Paresh Dave and Stephen Nellis report in San Francisco; Additional reports by Diane Bartz in Washington and Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Leslie Adler

Our standards:Principles of the Thomson Reuters Trust.

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