UK's NHS clashes with Google and Apple over contact tracing

Apple Google Partner On Covid 19 Contact Tracing Technology
Apple Google Partner On Covid 19 Contact Tracing Technology (Image credit: Apple)

What you need to know

  • The NHS has clashed with Apple and Google over its contact tracing app.
  • Apple and Google have refused to support the current UK plans.
  • That's because they won't support apps that require a centralized database of contacts.

Apple and Google have clashed with the NHS over the latter's plans to create a contact-tracing app which uses a centralized database of users.

As reported by The Guardian

The NHS is in a standoff with Apple and Google after the two tech firms refused to support the UK's plans to build an app that alerts users when they have been in contact with someone with coronavirus. Apple and Google are encouraging health services worldwide to build contact-tracing apps that operate in a decentralised way, allowing individuals to know when they've been in contact with an infected person but preventing governments from using that data to build a picture of population movements in aggregate. But the policies, unveiled last week, apply only to apps that don't result in the creation of a centralised database of contacts. That means that if the NHS goes ahead with its original plans, its app would face severe limitations on its operation.

Apple and Google announced its partnership last week, in a joint effort to enable Bluetooth technology that could help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of COVID-19 without sacrificing user privacy or security. It involves launching APIs and operating system-level technology. The APIs will be released in May, enabling interoperability between Android and iOS devices which use apps from public health authorities. The two are also planning to build a "Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform" into iOS and Android.

The Guardian notes that at current, Apple and Google won't support the NHS's current plans. If not, it means the NHS app for use in the UK will be severely limited, almost laughably so. That app wouldn't work if a user's screen was turned off, or if any other app other than the contact tracer was being used. It would mean your app would have to be active and open all the time, running down your battery and leaving you at risk of losing personal data if you lost your phone or it was stolen.

The NHS denied reports of a standoff and said:

"This suggestion is completely wrong. Everyone is in agreement that user privacy is paramount, and while our app is not dependent on the changes they are making, we believe they will be helpful and complimentary."

However a digital rights lecturer, Dr Michael Veale noted:

"The important thing here is, if you want your iPhones to work with this in your country, then you'll need to effectively adhere to Apple's standard of privacy for the system... Apple has said that the standard of privacy that they are demanding is a decentralized system. Otherwise, it will be very difficult to get iPhones to work with it without a workaround that will just stop people using it."

A source reportedly stated that the NHS was hoping limits on Bluetooth controls would be lifted for COVID-19, where currently limits prevent using Bluetooth invading too much on user privacy.

Without the support of Apple and Google, it sounds like the NHS contact tracing app will be practically useless. The NHS will almost certainly have to change course if it wants its efforts to be effective in this regard.

Have you listened to this week's Android Central Podcast?

Android Central

Every week, the Android Central Podcast brings you the latest tech news, analysis and hot takes, with familiar co-hosts and special guests.

  • Subscribe in Pocket Casts: Audio
  • Subscribe in Spotify: Audio
  • Subscribe in iTunes: Audio
Stephen Warwick