Switzerland says it is the first country to roll out a contact-tracing app for the COVID-19 coronavirus using technology and a set of APIs produced jointly by Apple and Google.
The launch – which is admittedly, for now, limited to a pilot group of essential workers in the country – comes well before the UK is due to widely release its own version of a similar app that has proven controversial regarding privacy and technological concerns.
The Swiss app, called simply SwissCovid, has been supplied to hospital workers, civil servants, and members of the Swiss army as a precursor to a large national roll-out next month. By using APIs developed by Apple and Google, as manufacturers of the most popular smartphone operating systems, the app is designed to protect people’s privacy by keeping all relevant information on their phone, and without burning the battery on Bluetooth signaling.
The automated contact-tracing system works by using a phone’s Bluetooth connectivity to save the IDs of other phones that have physically been nearby. If someone subsequently finds they have the coronavirus, they are able to release a list of IDs their phone has emitted in recent days to a cloud service that other phones will periodically check. If there is a match, other phone users are alerted that they may have been exposed.
That system has been hailed as a way to allow people to move around more freely while allowing anyone potentially infected by the COVID-19 virus to self-isolate if necessary, in theory limiting a new outbreak. The system means that no one is able to see or store the location of people or track individuals, something privacy advocates and the general public are concerned about.
However, many governments remain frustrated that the system designed by two US tech giants does not grant them access to data about the infections, and people's whereabouts and movements, that could prove to be extremely helpful in tackling the virus.
Earlier this week, the digital affairs ministers of Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal published a joint statement in which they complained that Apple and Google had failed to take into account their desires for more data and had “imposed technical standards” – a move that amounted to “a missed opportunity for an open collaboration between governments and the private sector.”
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The statement went on: “At a time like this, when the use of technology is crucial to combat this global crisis, as national governments, we expect technology companies to take into account the general well-being and needs of various countries in establishing digital standards. The use of digital technologies must be designed in such a way that we, as democratically elected governments, evaluate it and judge it acceptable to our citizens and in accordance with our European values.”
Regardless, many of those governments are set to introduce their versions of the Apple-Google APIs for the simple reason that other efforts to work around technical restrictions in iOS and Android, regarding Bluetooth and battery use, have proven problematic, and the general public is skeptical of what will happen with the data gathered through those centralized systems. Without a significant percentage of citizens downloading and using the app (at least 60 per cent, say experts), it is unlikely to be effective at limiting viral outbreaks.
Several countries have stood apart from the Apple-Google solution, however, not least the UK which has developed its own technology where all data will be sent to a central server and health professionals will be responsible for deciding when and how to contact people. The UK app, which has sparked ongoing concerns about privacy and its effectiveness, is being tested in the Isle of Wight, and is due to roll out later this year.
While we wait for that technology to be finalized, today Blighty will start a manual track-and-trace system of those who test positive for coronavirus.
UK goes it alone, virtually
The UK contact-tracing smartphone app, as it stands, relies on an unusual and rarely used features within Android and iOS to wake up other phones in its proximity and store people's unique IDs, and then, when someone comes down with COVID-19, they can choose to send the relevant data to the National Health Service, which analyses it before responses are sent out.
But there are questions over whether the system will actually work or whether a sufficient number of UK citizens will download it given the fact that the government has made it plain it intends to store the data indefinitely. There also remain serious concerns the app will be used to identify and track the locations of users, effectively acting as a mass surveillance tool.
The Australian government, which has produced a COVID-19 app similar to the UK’s approach, has not reached its target of 40 per cent of the population and is reportedly looking at switching to the Apple-Google approach in order to get more people using it.
Meanwhile, the Swiss have adopted a pragmatic attitude to the dispute. “All of us are trying to build a contact tracing system on top of software and hardware that was not designed for this purpose,” explained one of its developers, Professor for Systems and Network Security for ETH Zurich, Srdjan Čapkun.
He added: “Bluetooth was not developed for this kind of large-scale distance measurement. Making sure that we can use it in this way requires a lot of engineering skill and collaboration, including collaboration with Apple and Google.”
He warned however that being first also meant that “we are the first to have to deal with the teething troubles of the program,” and asked those in the pilot group to send feedback before the June national roll-out. ®