In major U-turn, UK agrees to adopt Apple-Google contact-tracing API

18 Jun 2020372 Views

Image: © Anthony Brown/Stock.adobe.com

Despite originally deciding to build its own centralised app, the UK will now embrace the contact-tracing API put forward by Apple and Google.

In a similar move to Germany, the UK has now decided to embrace the contact-tracing solution put forward by Apple and Google, called the Exposure Notification API, to track the spread of the coronavirus.

This means the UK will follow a decentralised model, where data will be stored on a user’s own device and not shared with a centralised server. The Exposure Notification API is seen as offering greater user privacy.

According to the BBC, the U-turn comes after former Apple executive Simon Thompson agreed to take over the contact-tracing app project for the UK.

The NHS has been testing both its own centralised app and the Exposure Notification API. It was reported that the centralised model being trialled on the Isle of Wight had worked well at assessing the distance between two users, but was poor at recognising certain devices.

“Apple software prevents iPhones being used effectively for contact tracing unless you’re using Apple’s own technology,” said UK health secretary Matt Hancock at a briefing today (18 June).

“We knew from the start that we would need to test and learn as we developed this new technology.”

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Concerns were also raised that if the UK developed a centralised app it would not work in sync with Ireland’s ongoing efforts to develop a contact-tracing app based on the Apple-Google API.

‘Heavily and unnecessarily delayed move’

One of the reasons why Germany decided to go with the Apple-Google solution is that its own centralised app would have required iPhones 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 let this happen, German leaders switched to the approach proposed by Apple and Google.

However, in testing the Exposure Notification API in the UK, the ability for iPhones to recognise each other was offset by a weaker ability to determine distance accurately. In some instances, an app using the API couldn’t differentiate between someone one metre away or three metres away. Such difficulties were also seen in research by a team from Trinity College Dublin.

Dr Michael Veale of the DP3T group that is advocating for the decentralised model welcomed the UK’s decision, despite it being a “heavily and unnecessarily delayed move”.

“The Google-Apple system in a way is homegrown: originating with research at a large consortium of universities led by Switzerland and including [University College London] in the UK,” he said.

“The UK has no end of options and no reasonable excuse to not get the app out quickly now.”

Colm Gorey is a senior journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

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