Apple’s refusal to budge sees Germany favour decentralised contact tracing

27 Apr 2020761 Views

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Germany’s government is to adopt the contact-tracing solution proposed by Apple and Google, despite originally backing a centralised standard.

A source inside the German government has told Reuters that Apple’s refusal to budge on changing iOS settings in response to calls for a centralised Covid-19 contact-tracing solution has forced the country to adopt a decentralised architecture.

In a joint statement, Germany’s chancellery minister Helge Braun and health minister Jens Spahn said the government would now be taking a “strongly decentralised” approach. This comes just a matter of days after the country seemed set to adopt the centralised approach put forward by the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) initiative.

If the country had gone with PEPP-PT, it would have required Apple to have the app unlocked and running in the foreground, which would be a drain on an iPhone user’s battery. When Apple said it was unwilling to do so, according to the senior government source, German leaders said there was no choice but to follow the approach proposed by Apple and Google.

The different solutions

Despite being Silicon Valley rivals, Apple and Google recently announced they were teaming up to develop a solution based on Bluetooth ‘handshakes’ that register when someone comes in close contact with another person. Should one person using the system be diagnosed with Covid-19, those who were in close, prolonged contact could be notified.

Using this decentralised approach, users could opt to share their phone number and any potential symptoms in an app. The contact tracing takes place on the user’s device, preventing authorities from being able to see who gets an alert, unless a user decides to disclose that information. The Apple and Google concept will work with decentralised protocols put forward by groups such as Swiss-led team DP-3T.

By comparison, the centralised approach put forward by PEPP-PT – established by German tech entrepreneur Hans-Christian Boos – would have given health authorities insights and control over tracing data.

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While the PEPP-PT initiative originally received backing from researchers and eight countries, a number of its proponents have since pulled out, citing a flawed methodology and an unwillingness to leave the concept open for scrutiny.

An open letter published on 19 April by scientists and researchers backing the decentralised approach warned that a centralised solution “would allow unprecedented surveillance of society at large”.

Australia’s app goes live

In a statement, the DP-3T group welcomed Germany’s decision to back the decentralised contact-tracing solution. PEPP-PT refused to comment.

Apple and Google’s contact-tracing system is expected to launch next month using APIs that enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices for an opt-in tracing tool.

Meanwhile, Australia launched its own contact-tracing app yesterday (26 April), with more than 1m downloads so far. According to the BBC, the app is based on an open-source solution developed in Singapore, which is using a combination of a centralised and decentralised approach.

Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, said that restrictions could be eased if enough people download the app. In order for maximum effectiveness, at least 40pc of the country’s population would need to download it, the government said.

All data – including the age range of a person and postcode – would be deleted after 21 days or when the app was deleted from a user’s phone. All data will also be stored in the country and would not be accessible by other authorities, such as the police.

Colm Gorey is a senior journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

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