Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Assorted Updates on Contact Tracing and Exposure Notification Apps

Darrell Etherington and Natasha Lomas, TechCrunch:

Apple and Google have provided a number of updates about the technical details of their joint contact tracing system, which they’re now exclusively referring to as an “exposure notification” technology, since the companies say this is a better way to describe what they’re offering. The system is just one part of a contact tracing system, they note, not the entire thing. Changes include modifications made to the API that the companies say provide stronger privacy protections for individual users, and changes to how the API works that they claim will enable health authorities building apps that make use of it to develop more effective software.

[…]

As we reported Thursday, Apple and Google also confirmed that they’re aiming to distribute next week the beta seed version of the OS update that will support these devices. On Apple’s side, the update will support any iOS hardware released over the course of the past four years running iOS 13. On the Android side, it would cover around 2 billion devices globally, Android said.

This story was reported on Friday, so “next week” means that iOS developers will first be able to take advantage of the exposure notification API in the coming days — and, likely, as soon as tomorrow.

Meanwhile, there is a worldwide implementation difference in contact tracing and exposure notification apps. As reported last week, the French government is seeking to create a centralized system; a press release from telecom giant Orange yesterday confirmed the team behind what is being called the “StopCovid” app.

Australia’s government launched its own app, as reported by Amy Remeikis for the Guardian:

The app, based on source code from Singapore’s Tracetogether software, maintains a log of bluetooth connections a person’s phone makes with the phones of those they have come into contact with, making it easier for health authorities to trace potential Covid-19 carriers in the case of a positive diagnosis.

For the app to be successful, just under half the population would need to carry it on their phones.

Because the app was released before the availability of iOS and Android APIs specifically for this purpose, the app requires users to keep the app open at all times. If the system kicks it out of background tasks, it is no longer effective.

Troy Hunt:

Next is the permissions requested and it’s only Bluetooth and notifications. Some people have been concerned about location tracking – note that access to geolocation is *never* requested so #covidsafe will never be able to access it (this is controlled at the operating system).

[…]

The negativity I’m seeing is almost entirely based on unsubstantiated speculation and a general distrust of government as opposed to any tangible, impactful evidence.

The U.K.’s NHS is also rolling its own app. Leo Kelion, BBC News:

Like the authorities in many other countries, NHSX has opted to use wireless Bluetooth transmissions to keep track of each qualifying meeting, and has said that the alerts will be sent anonymously, so that users do not know who triggered them.

It has opted for a “centralised model” to achieve this — meaning that the matching process, which works out which phones to send alerts to — happens on a computer server.

[…]

This approach puts the UK at odds with Switzerland, Estonia and Austria’s Red Cross, as well as a pan-European group called DP3T, which are pursuing decentralised designs.

Germany previously favoured a centralized model, similar to that being developed in France, but switched over the weekend to a decentralized configuration. Douglas Busvine and Andreas Rinke, Reuters:

Germany changed course on Sunday over which type of smartphone technology it wanted to use to trace coronavirus infections, backing an approach supported by Apple and Google along with a growing number of other European countries.

[…]

Germany as recently as Friday backed a centralised standard called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT), which would have needed Apple in particular to change the settings on its iPhones.

When Apple refused to budge there was no alternative but to change course, said a senior government source.

Apple would need to change its approach to backgrounding and killing apps. That would increase power consumption and would instantly be abused by unscrupulous developers, like Facebook and Uber, that have a history of meddling with background termination. The APIs being created by Apple and Google surely allow less visibility into the spread of the virus, but the tradeoff is their energy efficiency and verifiable kill switch.

Joe Miller and Leila Abboud, Financial Times:

Christian Miele, president of the Federal Association of German Startups, criticised the government’s decision.

“We have an extremely well-positioned digital industry in Germany,” he said.

“It is time that this is noticed by all political sides and that these experts are trusted in their own country.”

[…]

A perceived tie-up with US tech giants could further deter users with particular privacy concerns.

“It’s really the question of do you trust the government or do you trust Apple and Google?,” Julian Teicke, chief executive of Berlin start-up WeFox, told the Financial Times.

An extremely cynical impression of public officials and institutions is not an attitude shared by many people in Europe — or Canada, for that matter.