Apple and Google have blocked an update to the NHS app for contact tracking on iPhone and Android
An update to the NHS Covid-19 app has been blocked by Apple and Google, preventing iPhone and Android users from accessing its planned features as lockdown restrictions begin to lift in England and Wales. The team behind the NHS contacts tracking app had planned that the latest update would coincide with the new rules coming into effect, allowing hairdressers, gyms and non-essential stores to reopen.
The NHS Covid-19 app, available for free download on iPhone here and Android here, is designed to stop its spread by keeping track of when you’ve been in close contact with someone who has the virus. It uses Bluetooth to keep an eye on people around you.
With the latest update, the Department of Health had coded the NHS Covid-19 app to upload a backlog of their location’s check-ins, which are handled with the large QR codes outside of shops, pubs and restaurants, as they tested positive. This information, which would keep track of the locations they had visited while potentially contagious with the virus, would be used to alert others.
Apple and Google, however, explicitly prohibited this functionality. This limitation applies from the outset.
Apple is the creator of iOS, the mobile operating system that powers every iPhone model worldwide, while Google develops Android, which is used and adapted by dozens of different manufacturers, including Samsung, Sony, LG, OnePlus, Nokia, Oppo, as well as Google’s own Pixel line of smartphones. iOS and Android are the most popular smartphone operating systems in the world – and the partnership between Apple and Google is designed to make contract discovery between as many people as possible. The system developed by the two California rivals is designed to anonymize and protect the privacy of smartphone owners.
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If your smartphone has been near an iPhone or Android owner who later tests positive for the coronavirus, Apple and Google’s system will alert you. The NHS app, built on this system, uses a “risk assessment” algorithm to determine the likelihood that you have contracted the coronavirus.
If the system thinks this is unlikely – maybe they were on a platform while you were in the wagon of a train that stopped next to them – then you will not receive further notifications from the app. If there are good reasons to believe you have Covid-19 – if you’ve been both indoors and in the area, for example – the app will tell you to isolate yourself.
Why has the NHS Covid-19 app update been blocked?
The problem with the latest Health Ministry update was that it allowed the government to receive a history of your movements. Sharing the location’s check-in information after a positive test would allow the government to see your recent movements in explicit detail, from the shops you visited that morning to the restaurants and pubs. This is something Apple and Google do not want their technology to be used for.
While the system can alert users who have been around someone who later tests positive, that information is not shared with other organizations or governments.
To use the system developed by Apple and Google – which is made available for free, health authorities must agree not to collect location data using the contact tracking software. After all, it’s easy to see how this data could be maliciously used by governments and law enforcement around the world.
Since the latest update submitted to Apple and Google for the NHS Covid-19 app violates these rules, iPhone and Android users have not received the update today as planned. Instead, Apple and Google will continue to make the previous version available in the App Store and Google Play Store respectively.
When asked why the technology’s terms and conditions were diverted, the Health Department declined to discuss how the slip took place. Instead, a spokesperson told the BBC, “The implementation of the NHS Covid-19 app functionality to allow users to upload their location history has been delayed. This will not affect the functionality of the app and we continue to engage with our partners to provide useful updates to the app that protect the public. “
Scotland has bypassed the block because it offers two apps to the public. While Protect Scotland uses Apple and Google’s privacy-focused system, it also offers Check In Scotland, which is built on a proprietary system that shares the site’s history with the authorities.
The UK government initially avoided Apple and Google’s free-to-use contact tracking system due to its focus on privacy. By developing its own rival system, the British government wanted to preserve the location data of smartphone owners.
The planned app, which cost £ 12 million and took three months to develop, was unable to accurately detect contact between iPhone and Android due to Bluetooth restrictions imposed on the operating system by Google and Apple. This restriction is to prevent background applications (ie not always displayed on the screen) from constantly checking Bluetooth connections to keep an eye on nearby users. This is a privacy concern – do you really want Facebook, for example, to keep track of all the people you met on the street today? However, the limitation is also intended to prevent the battery from draining seriously. Unfortunately, the feature prevented the NHS app from finding 25 percent of Android phones and 96 percent of iPhone owners.
As such, it was dropped and the UK government used the freely available – albeit more limited due to restrictions on location data – option from Apple and Google.
The UK was not the only country to reject Apple and Google’s privacy-focused approach, Germany, Italy and Denmark also sought to create their own system that would work just as effectively as the one created by the Silicon Valley companies behind the operational activities. system.
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