Tech

Apple releases COVID-19 Contact Tracing iOS update: Health Minister to meet with Apple today

In the slow-moving world of Government bureaucracy you have to give credit to our health officials for the pace at which they’ve been able to react and respond to the COVID-19 crisis, including the release of the COVIDSafe app which has been downloaded more than six million times.

However, the app is not perfect. It’s safe, it’s secure, and your privacy is guaranteed at every step of the process.

The imperfections come from how Apple’s operating system allows apps to use Bluetooth.

It’s a complex issue, and while you could read many reems of pages about this, the bottom line is, the app works better on Android than it does on iPhones.

Recently, an update to the app included new code from the developers who integrated learnings from the UK version of the app to get better results from the Bluetooth on iPhones – that’s a great start.

Today though, Apple and Google announced their own “Exposure Notification” had been released to the public – in Apple’s case through iOS 13.5. This update does not do anything to the app, or to the phones, other than to make some new programming options available to Public Health agencies developing these apps.

The Code is not available to any random developers for their own apps, it’s specific to COVID-19 Contact Tracing apps.

However, those apps need to be thoroughly updated to integrate the new code.

An Australian Government spokesperson confirmed to EFTM they were working on testing this update, saying “The DTA and the Department of Health have been working with Apple and Google to understand and test the Exposure Notification Framework since it was released to see how it can be applied in Australia. That testing is ongoing.”

Interestingly, it appears timely that our own Health Minister is meeting today with Apple, the spokesperson telling EFTM “The technology and uptake of Australia’s COVIDSafe app is leading the world and Minister Hunt is today meeting with the VP of Apple to discuss its success and Australia’s roadmap out of the crisis.

Of course that meeting will likely also cover such things as the Apple Mobility report which is informing governments around the world about how active we are being and how that relates to the lockdown style regulations.

Apple and Google today say “One of the most effective techniques that public health officials have used during outbreaks is called contact tracing. Through this approach, public health officials contact, test, treat and advise people who may have been exposed to an affected person.

One new element of contact tracing is Exposure Notifications: using privacy-preserving digital technology to tell someone they may have been exposed to the virus.

Exposure Notification has the specific goal of rapid notification, which is especially important to slowing the spread of the disease with a virus that can be spread asymptomatically.    

To help, Apple and Google cooperated to build Exposure Notifications technology that will enable apps created by public health agencies to work more accurately, reliably and effectively across both Android phones and iPhones.  

Over the last several weeks, our two companies have worked together, reaching out to public health officials scientists, privacy groups and government leaders all over the world to get their input and guidance. 

Starting today, our Exposure Notifications technology is available to public health agencies on both iOS and Android. What we’ve built is not an app — rather public health agencies will incorporate the API into their own apps that people install. Our technology is designed to make these apps work better. 

Each user gets to decide whether or not to opt-in to Exposure Notifications; the system does not collect or use location from the device; and if a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, it is up to them whether or not to report that in the public health app. User adoption is key to success and we believe that these strong privacy protections are also the best way to encourage use of these apps. 

The challenges of this integration are not small, but they are not insurmountable.

EFTM has been following the Google and Apple API plans since announced, and there are conflicts between the system and how our own App is designed. For example, Apple and Google have a different definition of an Exposure Event to the Governement. Apple and Google only plan to retain information 14 days, versus our app’s 21. And Apple and Google don’t require any personal data (Name or Phone Number) for the Exposure Notification to work.

Hopefully, Government developers and Apple along with Google can work quickly together to roll out this update within the month, allowing us greater certainty about the reliability and quality of the app as we get back to levels of normality in society.

Apple releases COVID-19 Contact Tracing iOS update: Health Minister to meet with Apple today
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