France and UK test contact tracking apps without Apple and Google technologies


As governments around the world scramble to contain the spread of COVID-19, France and the United Kingdom announced this week their intention to start testing digital contact search solutions developed without the help of Apple and from Google’s exposure notification system.

Examples of user interface elements for Apple and Apple’s COVID-19 exposure monitoring system.

The UK Department of Health and Welfare said in a press release on Monday that the NHS COVID-19 application will be rolled out to residents of the Isle of Wight as part of the test, track and trace program.

The NHS and board staff will be able to download the contact finder on Tuesday before wide distribution on Thursday.

Designed to work in conjunction with “enhanced contact tracing services” and swab testing for residents with COVID-19 symptoms, the application was developed by the NHSX and a team of scientists and doctors.

Like other contact tracking applications under development by governments and private entities, the NHS method uses Bluetooth technology to track contacts between smartphones and issue anonymous alerts if someone tests positive for the virus. Those without smart devices can record their recent contacts via an online portal or via telephone interviews.

In particular, the UK system relies on a centralized database to store patient information and, as such, is incompatible with an exposure notification platform created by Apple and Google. Decentralization is an essential feature of the Apple-Google system, which relies on such measures to guarantee anonymity and protect sensitive user information.

Without access to the cross-platform exposure notification API, which works on Android and iOS devices, apps that require Bluetooth communications typically suffer from limited integration. Knowing this, the NHS has worked “phenomenally closely” with Apple and Google to ensure that the COVID-19 application is fully functional, reports CNET.

NHSX CEO Matthew Gould, at a parliamentary committee meeting on Monday, said privacy is “at the heart of the application” and noted that the NHS is ready to move to a decentralized solution if necessary, according to The report.

France is also adopting a centralized data approach with its “StopCOVID” application, which should be tested next week, reports Reuters.

Detailed by the Minister of Digital Affairs Cedric O in an article in Medium, the application methodology is almost identical to the NHS COVID-19 application in that it records anonymized Bluetooth interactions to monitor the spread of coronaviruses and alert users of the exhibition.

It is not clear if France is working with Apple and Google to overcome technological barriers, in particular to resolve background access to the communications stack of a smartphone, which would have a serious impact on utility of the application. O had previously asked Apple to lift the security barrier, but found that the company was unwilling to cooperate on the matter.

“French sovereignty in matters of health and technology … is the freedom for our country to have the choice and not to be constrained by the choices of a large company, however innovative and effective they may be”, writes O on Medium.

While France and the UK are using centralized technology at odds with Apple-Google standards, other countries are more willing to work with tech giants to access what should be a powerful platform for coronavirus surveillance and mitigation. Germany, for example, was initially opposed to the exposure notification system, but at the end of last month it changed its mind on the issue and headed for the deployment of a decentralized framework. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also appears to be primarily aligned with Apple and Google in its guidelines for contact tracing technology.

Apple and Google are continuing their joint project and released a beta version of the developer API as part of iOS 13.5 last week. On Monday, the companies released coding resources such as sample user interfaces for developers building apps for health officials.

Additional requirements have also been provided with the new code, including provisions that prohibit applications from accessing user location data and a restriction that limits PHAs to one application per country, the latter being designed “to promote a strong user adoption and avoid fragmentation ”.

After deploying the API, Apple and Google plan to integrate the exposure notification system into their respective mobile operating systems, a move that should increase accuracy while reducing battery charge.


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