Apple and Google in standoff with NHS over contact tracing

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bluetooth
NHS wants Google and Apple to give it more access for contact tracing.
Photo: MIT

Apple and Google are reportedly in a “standoff” with the UK’s National Health Service over the development of the companies’ joint program to build contact tracing APIs.

According to a report from The Guardian, the two companies are taking a strong stand against the NHS’s insistence to break current Bluetooth privacy protocols. The NHS is hoping Apple and Google will lift their limits on how Bluetooth can be used, but Google says those limits are in place so that they can’t be abused for surveillance efforts.

The heart of the issue appears to be the tech companies’ belief that all coronavirus contact tracing apps should run on a decentralized system. The proposed method would allow individuals to check when their smartphone has come into contact with someone who has recently tested positive for the coronavirus without giving governments the ability to do aggregate location tracking.

NHS butts heads with Apple/Google

Tools being developed by Apple and Google restrict the information health authorities can gather. NHS wants its app to be able to do population flows in the aggregate, track “near misses” and gather a list of every other phone a user has been in contact with. That would be in violation of Apple and Google’s policy though.

“This suggestion is completely wrong,” said an NHSX spokesperson. “Everyone is in agreement that user privacy is paramount, and while our app is not dependent on the changes they are making, we believe they will be helpful and complimentary.”

The only way the NHS app will work right now is if the user’s screen is turned on and the app is active on the home screen. Those hurdles would cause the smartphone’s battery to diminish rapidly and would probably stop people from opting into the platform.

Google and Apple are working on an API that allows approved apps to get around those hurdles if they follow their policy of using a decentralized system. The first APIs should be available by mid-May, allowing countries to build their own contact tracing apps. Hopefully, NHS changes its tune on using a centralized database by then.