UK flip-flops on Apple and Google’s contact-tracing API, will now use it

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UK's contact-tracing app has been delayed.
Photo: World Health Organization

The U.K. government, which clashed with Apple and Google over its approach to contact tracing, has reportedly done a U-turn and will now adopt the tech giants’ privacy-conscious framework for fighting COVID-19.

The BBC reported the change of heart Thursday, one day after revealing that a former Apple executive, Simon Thompson, has taken charge of the delayed project. Thompson, who works as chief product officer at online retailer Ocado, supervised Apple’s e-commerce efforts a decade ago.

Apple and Google announced their contact-tracing API in April. The system was designed to help track where infected individuals have been and who they have come into contact with.

However, the U.K. disagreed with Apple’s decentralized approach to contact tracing. U.K. government leaders instead desired a centralized approach, which means the anonymized proximity data about users is stored on a server. This server would then be controlled by an entity such as a health care service.

Apple and Google’s decentralized approach means information is stored locally on individual devices. It can be uploaded after a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19. But this can only be done with the user’s permission.

Flip-flopping on contact-tracing approach

The United Kingdom is one of several countries to shift their approach to contact tracing. Germany, Austria and Uruguay all switched to a more decentralized approach to contact tracing. The U.K.’s contact-tracing app was supposed to launch in May. However, it has been pushed back due to delays.

It remains to be seen how useful contact-tracing ultimately turns out to be. As noted, Apple and Google’s technology is not an app, but rather an API. In other words, it’s a set of tools that can then be used as the basis for an app coded by a country or state. The contact-tracing API arrived with iOS 13.5’s debut a month ago. However, countries still need to create the apps themselves. Currently, this appears to be the major bottleneck.

In the United States, only a few states have said they will use Apple and Google’s contact-tracing API. These include Alabama, North Dakota, South Carolina and Virginia.