Germany Embraces Apple and Google’s Contact Tracing Technology

By Chand Bellur

April 26, 2020 at 2:43 p.m. PT

  • Apple and Google partnered to deliver APIs for contact tracing technology.
  • Germany and other nations prefer a centralized solution, such that healthcare workers can operate on the information.
  • Apple refused to make changes enabling Germany’s preferred contact tracing methodology, forcing the nation to accept the tech titans’ solution.

Apple Denies Germany’s Request for iOS Settings Changes

Beating a pandemic isn’t easy. It takes a legion of healthcare workers armed with technology and authority. Public health institutions must engage in wide-scale testing. Isolation of infected and their contacts is necessary to stem the spread of the disease.

Unfortunately, a battle over values slows progress on contact tracing technology. As it stands, both Apple and Google support a decentralized approach, where the infected and exposed contacts voluntarily share information with public health authorities.

In this model, individuals need to opt-in to exchange public health information. Health care authorities don’t have access to any of this information without consent. Even with permission, they can’t discover where outbreak hotspots occur without GPS location tracking. Apple and Google do not track or record GPS data with their contact tracing APIs.

Germany initially preferred a centralized approach to contact tracing, which would provide healthcare workers with essential information for field operations. The technique, known as Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT), would require Apple to change some iOS settings. The Cupertino tech company refused to make the changes, forcing Germany to accept an inferior solution. Other technical and privacy issues plagued PEPP-PT. Google and Apple’s technology ended up being the best option, with time being of the essence.

Bluetooth or Not Bluetooth?

Early specifications provided by both tech companies indicated a preference for Bluetooth technology. Although the first version of the API does not use Bluetooth, the technology was to be adopted eventually.

It turns out that Apple devices must remain unlocked, and the app must persist in the foreground for Bluetooth to be effective. There’s no way to run Bluetooth proximity monitoring in the background.

Fortunately, a Swiss team developed a new technology for private, omnipresent tracking technology. Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (DP-3T) allows users to opt-in to sharing their information with authorities. DP-3T won’t be part of Apple or Google’s solution. Instead, third-party developers, such as European public health agencies, must integrate the technology at the application level.

Given that privacy is still more important than stopping COVID-19, Western nations must accept this sacrifice. After all, the EU is adamant about protecting user privacy, to an absurd extent. It’s almost surprising some would suggest a centralized, data-gathering effort that violates personal privacy.

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