Five key questions about Google and Apple’s contact tracing system

NHS tests found the Apple-Google system could not tell if another phone was one or three metres apart.

However, the NHSX project quickly ran into a host of basic technical challenges.

To work, the contact tracing app needed to work smoothly with all smartphones. In other words, whatever phone or operating system you own had to be able to communicate effectively via Bluetooth with any other person’s phone.

But developers soon found that they did not. For example, iPhones that fell idle or which were locked would no longer be able to match to other iPhones. The app would also not work on older versions of Android, Google’s operating system used on most non-Apple devices.

The problem for the Government is the system Apple and Google were developing would store data in a different way to the UK’s planned app. It would store all data locally on phones. In theory, this is more private.

Matt Hancock blamed Apple for refusing to make changes to its iOS software that would have allowed the UK app to work. He said: “As it stands, our app won’t work because Apple won’t change their system.”

The Government awarded contracts worth more than £11 million to companies to help develop its contact tracing app before its U-turn to work with Apple and Google.

According to Government records published online so far, 11 contracts have been awarded to private firms aiding the app’s development totalling £11,297,811.

How does it work and is it more private?

Apple and Google’s system is based on a different “decentralised” model. It is not an app, per se, it is a software system that health authorities can build on. 

Germany, Italy and Switzerland have all built and launched apps based on its technology. 

The Apple/ Google system is different in the following ways:

  1.  It stores data on someone’s coronavirus symptoms locally, which does not leave the phone. With the NHS’s app, this data was collected and stored on a central database to allow researchers to monitor the pandemic
  2. When someone reports they have coronavirus through the app, other people are told via a “peer-to-peer” warning system. This means the information is routed directly to the smartphones of matched users. It does not travel to a central database and cannot otherwise be monitored.
  3. The app is based on positive test results. Users only report into the app once they have a positive test. The UK’s app would have relied on unverified symptoms.

This system, which stops a health authority from collecting masses of data on its population, is seen as more private by Apple and privacy advocates. They fear mission creep where governments might start to collect huge amounts of other health data unchecked.

Crucially, Apple and Google are tackling some of the key technical challenges encountered by NHSX to allow iPhones to still be able to collect data, even when they are left idle.

When did Apple and Google launch it, and why has it taken so long to switch?

The tech giants launched their software tool on May 20, giving governments access to detect when Android and iOS devices came in close contact with one another when official apps were installed.

Apple and Google’s application programming interface (API), which was released after five weeks’ of discussions with various states, operates on a centralised basis. The two tech giants argue its system is considerably more private than the alternative that has been pursued by the UK up until now.

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