Apple and Google block UK contact-tracing app update over privacy concerns

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The NHS COVID-19 app relies on a framework jointly developed by Apple and Google.
Apple and Google teamed up to build their contact-tracing API last year.
Screenshot: NHS

Both Apple and Google have blocked an update to England and Wales’ Department of Health contact-tracing app, built using the tech giants’ API.

The update was intended to be released to coincide with the relaxation of lockdown measures in the United Kingdom. However, it apparently breached one of Apple and Google’s main rules: Apps built with the contact-tracing technology are not allowed to gather location data that could track users.

“The plan had been to ask users to upload logs of venue check-ins – carried out via poster barcode scans – if they tested positive for the virus,” according to the BBC. “This could be used to warn others.”

Butting up against privacy rules

All health authorities that wanted to use Apple and Google’s API signed an agreement not to collect location data. It’s not clear how — or why — the Department of Health thought it could get away with not following the rules.

While the NHS Covid-19 app asked people to scan a QR code when visiting a public venue, this change would have asked that they upload this information to the cloud. A spokesperson for the Department of Health told the BBC that “deployment of the functionality of the NHS Covid-19 app to enable users to upload their venue history has been delayed.”

This isn’t the first time the U.K.’s National Health Service clashed with Apple and Google over contact tracing. Originally, it engaged in a “standoff” with the tech giants over limitations on the use of Bluetooth. Google and Apple said they put the limits in place so COVID-19 apps couldn’t be used for surveillance. Eventually, the United Kingdom adopted Apple and Google’s contact-tracing APIs.

Apple and Google viewed privacy as one of the central tenets while creating their anti-coronavirus tool.

Source: BBC