There is a growing problem with Apple’s role in the contact tracking apps that countries are developing to fight the coronavirus pandemic. This was underlined by the UK’s announcement that the long-awaited NHSx app will be parked in favor of another model recommended by Apple and Google.
Apple effectively dictates to governments the levels of data protection their contact tracking apps must meet. Unless apps meet Apple’s requirements, they cannot access Bluetooth on users’ phones in the background. This is crucial for the proper functioning of the apps (Google takes a laissez-fair approach without these restrictions).
What Apple wants …
Contact tracking apps aim to prevent the spread of the corona virus by monitoring who a person comes into contact with. If a contact is likely to be infected, the app triggers a warning asking the user to isolate themselves and be tested. Such apps have already been introduced in numerous countries.
The British approach was to store the data used by the app to determine who is likely to be infected in a central database. However, this violated Apple’s restrictions that the data should instead be stored on users’ phones – the so-called decentralized model.
[Read: How major US cities are using location data to make key decisions about COVID-19]
As British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said, the NHSx app might have worked if Apple hadn’t been willing to negotiate the restrictions. Developers also need to address a special addendum to the App Store’s standard legal agreement.
Apple did not respond to comments requests in time for publication. Google welcomed the UK announcement and said its approach was “developed based on consultations with public health experts around the world, including in the UK, to ensure that our efforts are useful to the authorities when they are develop their own apps to limit the spread of COVID-19, with privacy and security at the heart of the design. “
Due to Apple’s limitations, the UK-only app could only recognize about 4% of iPhones in certain circumstances. Google supports the same decentralized approach, but only Apple insists by preventing users from installing apps on an iPhone unless they’re from the App Store. Without the same restrictions on Android phones, the app recognized users in about 75% of the cases.
Google and Apple have justified their restrictions to protect user privacy. Indeed, privacy advocates prefer their model. Privacy is certainly critical to user confidence in contact tracking apps, but it is less clear where to draw the line.
The Apple / Google approach is subject to important restrictions. First, apps cannot share the type of phone everyone uses. The NHSx app used this to more accurately estimate the distance between people and reduce false positives. The decentralized system only sends warnings after a user has reported that they have tested positive for the virus. Unlike centralized apps, warnings cannot be based on factors such as the modeled risk of an infectious person, based on information about symptoms that users have reported through the app.
Waiting for a confirmed test result may be too late to prevent the virus from spreading. The virus is believed to have an average incubation period of around 5.1 days, and scientists believe that people can be contagious from around two days before symptoms appear and at most before symptoms begin.
The bigger picture
For a technology company, telling a government what to do is an interesting sign of our times. France also clashed with the manufacturer of the iPhone operating system. In the end, a centralized app was launched in early June, destroying all information stored after 14 days. Despite its attempts, the French app also has no access to Apple’s background Bluetooth system. So we’ll see how well it works.
Data protection is undoubtedly important, but this situation raises broader questions about technology companies in modern life. Much of the new EU antitrust investigation into Apple relates to how the company calculates a cut of up to 30% for payments in the App Store to third-party apps. These compete with apps that Apple creates itself on the platform, the rules of which they set.
With contact tracing apps, Apple doesn’t charge access fees or really make money from it. But like third-party apps in the App Store, Apple acts as a gatekeeper. If you want to make an app available to 51% of UK smartphone users on iPhones, you have to do what Apple says. Even if you are an elected government in the midst of a pandemic.
App developers were very dissatisfied with how Apple controls access to the App Store and what some see as subjective and inconsistent application of the rules. Recently, the focus has been on an email service called Hey, which raised awareness of these issues after being threatened with removal from the store.
In the end, the situation was resolved after Basecamp released a free “Lite” version of Hey on iPhones, which encouraged Mac users to download a paid version from the company’s website. This is in line with the number of providers, especially Spotify and Netflix, that circumvent the Apple payment rule by preventing customers from placing orders or signing up for paid services in the iPhone app.
It’s one thing to dictate company terms. Dictating to countries during a global pandemic is different. Apple’s position may be about protecting users’ privacy. However, the timing is unfortunate if some of the restrictions on third-party apps are to be examined by the EU.
The UK government says it will try to work with Apple and Google to improve their tracing model. An app may not be available until winter. Given some of the inherent limitations of the decentralized model compared to the NHSx approach, it remains to be seen how effective this will be – especially when some important benefits are lost, when coronavirus testing is required and the risk to individuals cannot be modeled to make warnings more specific.
This article was republished from The Conversation by Greig Paul, Lead Mobile Networks and Security Engineer, University of Strathclyde, under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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