Britain will abandon its plans to develop in-house tracking and use Apple and Google’s program instead.
The past few months, Britain was determined to continue pursuing an app designed to help with its coronavirus lockdown. The endeavor drew concerns from consumer advocates, however, who worried about privacy violations. Now, the government has announced it would join other countries and design a new contact-tracing app based on software provided by Apple and Google. This announcement came after a previous communication that the in-house contact-tracing technology under development would be available to the public by May to no avail.
Leaders stuck to a plan of building an app in-house even as neighboring countries, including Germany and Italy, both agreed to use Apple and Google’s technology more than a month ago. British public health officials wanted to avoid using the software provided by Apple and Google because it limits the amount of data that can be collected and analyzed.
Apple and Google, whose iOS and Android operating systems run on smartphones, prevented outside apps that did not use their code from taking advantage of the software and affecting user privacy. Technical specifications from Apple and Google prevent any government from collecting data that could be stored in a centralized database. Instead, this information is stored locally on an individual’s phone, which occasionally communicates with a server to allow analysis of an anonymous list of people who have agreed to share their COVID-19 diagnosis. British officials argued that access to more data would have added public health benefits but was unable to develop a viable alternative.
“Countries across the globe have faced challenges in developing an app which gets all of these elements right,” Matt Hancock, Britain’s health secretary, said. “Through ongoing international collaboration, we hope to learn, improve, and find a solution which will strengthen our global response to this virus.”
In the interim, the British government has built a 25,000-person web of contact tracers. Health professionals are supposed to call anyone who tests positive for the virus and obtain a list of their recent contacts. Then a lower-level tier of workers will reach out to these people to ask them to isolate themselves. But thousands of infected patients are still being missed under this structure.
The contact-tracing apps are meant to speed up the process of identifying people who may have contracted the disease but are still asymptomatic, meaning they could easily spread the virus to others. Tech experts hope the information will allow for quick isolation when there is a known outbreak. The Google-Apple effort is only available via consumer opt-in, so privacy is protected.
“It’s not a replacement for just having widespread testing, which would be more accurate,” said Tiffany Li, a visiting law professor at Boston University who studies privacy and technology. “But clearly we have a huge shortage of tests.”
Dr. Mike Reid, an assistant professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the University of California, San Francisco, echoed these sentiments, stating, “This data could empower members of the general population to make informed decisions about their own health in terms of self-quarantining. But it doesn’t replace the public health imperative that we scale up contact tracing in the public health departments around the world.”
Now that Britain has agreed to come on board, France remains the largest European country still working to develop its own tracking app.