Colombia has removed the contact tracking feature in its official app to inform residents of the new corona virus after experiencing glitches, but is aiming to rebuild with potentially more reliable technology from Apple Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google, a government official told Reuters. The previously unreported actions of the Colombian government are contributing to a growing number of accounts of countries using Apple-Google technology and dropping alternatives to help them fight outbreaks faster.
Contact tracking involves identifying, testing, and isolating people who have been exposed to the virus before spreading it to others, something that governments around the world have said is vital to keep their economies open safely until a vaccine exists. Apps that tap the Bluetooth sensors in smartphones to detect encounters with those who test positive can speed up the process, experts say. But some governments that planned to continue using such apps without the help of the US technology giants were forced to change course. Australia’s head of contact tracing app told senators on Tuesday that his team is switching to Apple-Google technology via a glitchy internal solution, and the government agency behind the UK’s upcoming app revealed in a contract signed Tuesday that it asks engineers to test the Apple-Google system because of privacy concerns about the previously planned alternative.
The decisions have a big impact on using smartphone apps to log meetings between people, making it easier to find and warn those who have crossed with a virus carrier. Apple and Google have said that their Bluetooth-based technology will run smoother than alternatives, and that they are trusted by consumers wary of government oversight, with the companies using the government-collected GPS location of app users and other personal data forbid. Several governments, including France, the United Kingdom and some U.S. states, claim that Apple and Google’s privacy protection rules prevent the robust data analysis necessary to slow the spread of the virus.
But Colombia’s struggle to use alternative technology highlights the challenges ahead of governments reluctant to accept the terms of Apple and Google. “Certainly several lessons have been learned in this process,” President of Colombia, Victor Munoz, told Reuters.
PUBLICIZING ON IPHONES The Colombian government was well on track with its CoronApp, which was downloaded by 4.3 million people on May 2 and also includes features to report symptoms and see where cases are on a map.
But the CoronApp discontinued its contact tracking feature a few days after its launch last month. Apple and Google, the leading manufacturers of smartphone operating systems, allow government-tracking apps to bypass their technology. But without this, iPhones don’t transmit a readable Bluetooth signal while locked, a feature designed to prevent tracking and extend battery life.
Contact tracing apps are useless unless at least about half of the population downloads them and iPhone usage is too large to be ignored in most countries. That’s why CoronApp used alternative technology from Portuguese company HypeLabs, which sells network technology to gaming apps and other companies, claiming to overcome the iPhone Bluetooth limitation.
But Munoz said Colombia ran into multiple challenges with the contact tracking feature that relied on HypeLabs, including inaccuracies when logging contacts over Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Colombia needed a better way to “minimize the risk of generating unnecessary alerts” and instead decided to align CoronApp with Apple-Google technology, Munoz added.
His team had met representatives from Apple and Google and was studying their technology, he said. “It is very important to us that we evaluate any alternative that can help the government make better decisions,” Munoz said.
HypeLabs said it is still in talks with several other countries. Australian Digital Transformation Agency chief executive Randall Brugeaud said on Tuesday that the country’s COVIDSafe app is struggling to capture encounters the longer an iPhone remains locked.
“The big shift in Bluetooth connectivity performance will be the point that we can take advantage of the new Apple-Google Bluetooth management software,” he told senators. Apple and Google started a joint solution to the connection problem between devices last month. But their offer, which won’t be available until mid-May, prevents governments from collecting databases of popular movements.
Colombia is one of many governments hoping to collect such location data to detect coronavirus hotspots where businesses may need to be closed or thoroughly cleaned.
APPLE GOOGLE MAY FALL
Other developers are continuing to build apps for tracking contacts without Apple Google technology. The Silicon Valley giants only authorize their tools for government contact discovery apps. But several developers have told Reuters they are requesting from big companies that want apps and workplaces. “We’ve spoken to a professional sports team, food supply companies, a car dealer, nonprofits,” said Jamison Day, founder of Safe2, an app that uses HypeLabs technology to report exposure.
Only using Bluetooth can also fall short, experts say. The coronavirus can spread through shared objects such as tables, and two people sitting in the same place for an hour at a time would not be picked up by the Apple-Google Bluetooth system, said Aarathi Prasad, a professor of computer science at Skidmore College. Privacy activists have praised the protection introduced by Apple and Google, and noted that there are legitimate concerns about how data from contact discovery apps can be misused by governments.
Whether consumers trust elected officials or Apple and Google to better protect data collected through contact tracking remains an important question, with divergent answers worldwide. HypeLabs co-founder Carlos Lei said he continues to seek questions from government officials, whom he declined to mention, who have reservations about embracing Apple and Google.
“If it’s an entire world dealing with a problem, it’s always better than just one or two private companies investigating it,” Lei told Reuters.