Governments divided over Apple and Google’s approach to contact tracing

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Plenty of governments are optimistic about contact tracing. But which approach to take?
Photo: World Health Organization

The battle over decentralized versus centralized contact-tracing apps continues to rage. Some public health officials feel forced to adopt Google and Apple’s Exposure Notifications system — even if they don’t necessarily think it’s the right approach, Bloomberg reported Wednesday.

Others are avoiding the system altogether, despite the fact that its privacy-first approach has been praised by privacy advocates.

The report notes that:

“From France to Australia to North Dakota, government apps designed to help authorities track and slow the spread of Covid-19 are struggling to accomplish their goals because of restrictions on data collection built into smartphones by Apple and Google. That’s leaving public health officials with few options but to use a system designed by Apple and Google themselves. The tech companies say their tools preserve privacy and work seamlessly on devices used by some 3 billion people. Here’s the rub: Those same privacy features lock authorities out of collecting information they can use to track the broader spread of virus, spot larger patterns and plan reopenings.”

The key difference between centralized and decentralized contact-tracing apps is how data is stored. In a centralized approach, the anonymized proximity data about users stays on a server controlled by an entity such as a government health service. The decentralized approach favored by Apple and Google involves storing information locally on individual devices. Users can opt to upload a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 should they wish to do so.

The right approach to contact tracing?

Bloomberg says Apple and Google are “refusing to ease restrictions in their mobile software that are blocking governments from building their own centralized, less private apps” for contact tracing. Apple and Google have stressed the importance of privacy in their approach.

But some places, like North Dakota, chose to build additional apps rather than baking Apple and Google’s system into their primary app as would be preferable. In Europe, most countries have adopted Apple and Google’s API as the basis of their own contact-tracing tools. However, the United Kingdom and France have opted to eschew Apple and Google’s tool altogether to build their own centralized apps.

“Apple could have helped us make it work even better,” Cedric O, France’s digital minister, said recently. “A company that has never been in a better economic shape is not helping the government to fight the crisis. We will remember that.” France’s contact-tracing app is due to go live on June 2.

Bloomberg offers an interesting comparison with Apple’s previous standoff with the FBI over privacy:

“The debate is similar to the one that emerged when the U.S. government demanded Apple build a software back door into iPhones to give authorities access for the purported reason of fighting crime and terrorism. Apple has resisted, saying the precedent would damage civil rights and privacy for the millions of people who use its devices.”