New iPhone and Android update TODAY adds 'contact tracing' tech – but NHS app won't use it

APPLE and Google have released smartphone technology that alerts users if they might have been exposed to coronavirus.

The California tech giants have spent months building a framework for an app that it's hoped will help stop the spread of the deadly disease.

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Launched on Wednesday, heath agencies worldwide can use the technology to build their own versions of "contact tracing" apps.

The tech uses Bluetooth to detect when someone who downloaded the app has spent time near another app user who later tests positive for the virus.

Apple and Google said 22 countries and several US states are already planning to build voluntary phone apps using their software.

Apple and Google's technology will not be used to build a UK contact tracing app, as the NHS has instead chosen to build its own software from scratch.

Many governments have already tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to roll out their own phone apps to fight the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many of those apps have encountered technical problems on Apple and Android phones and haven't been widely adopted.

They often use GPS to track peoples location, which Apple and Google are banning from their new tool because of privacy and accuracy concerns.

Public health agencies from Germany to the states of Alabama and South Carolina have been waiting to use the Apple-Google model.

Other governments, including the UK's, have said the tech giants' privacy restrictions will be a hindrance because public health workers will have no access to the data.

The companies said they're not trying to replace contact tracing, a pillar of infection control that involves trained public health workers reaching out to people who may have been exposed to an infected person.

But they said their automatic exposure notification system can augment that process and slow the spread of COVID-19 by virus carriers who are interacting with strangers and aren't yet showing symptoms.

The identity of app users will be protected by encryption and anonymous identifier beacons that change frequently.

"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 companies said in a joint statement Wednesday.

The companies said the new technology – the product of a rare partnership between the rival tech giants – solves some of the main technical challenges that governments have had in building Bluetooth-based apps.

It will make it easier for iPhones and Android phones to detect each other, work across national and regional borders and fix some of the problems that led previous apps to quickly drain a phones battery.

The statement Wednesday also included remarks from state officials in North Dakota, Alabama and South Carolina signalling that they plan to use it.

"We invite other states to join us in leveraging smartphone technologies to strengthen existing contact tracing efforts, which are critical to getting communities and economies back up and running, said North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican.

North Dakota had already launched a location-tracking app that about four per cent of state residents are using.

That's higher than other U.S. states with similar apps but falls far short of the participation rate that experts say is needed to make such technology useful.

Some privacy advocates have favored the Google-Apple approach because it offers more privacy and security.

What is the NHS's contact tracing app?

Here's what you need to know…

  • NHS tech experts are helping develop a phone app which will reveal if you've been near someone who has coronavirus.
  • It will allow mobile phones to trace users who have come into contact with sufferers and suggest they get tested for the killer infection.
  • Ministers believe the tech initiative is key to lifting the lockdown as quickly as possible.
  • Health Secretary Matt Hancock is now reportedly looking at ways to get people to install the app  – as at least 60 per cent need to for it to work efficiently.
  • One idea being considered is allowing those who do to resume normal work and home life, say the reports.
  • Apple and Google have also teamed up to develop a framework for apps which will reveal if you have been within two metres of someone who has the virus.
  • The powerful pair – who operate 99 per cent of the world's smartphones – say the software will make it easier to track down people who may have been infected.
  • The 'contact tracing' will play a vital role in managing the deadly virus, according to health experts.

But others, including Ryan Calo, a law professor who co-directs the University of Washington's Tech Policy Lab, said he is concerned about its effectiveness if people get too many false alerts asking them to quarantine themselves.

He said public health agencies would be better off being able to track location with careful safeguards.

Calo said Google and Apple have been more upfront about the limitations of their model, but he said he's still worried some governments will treat it as a substitute for crucial investments in free, widespread testing and hiring an army of human contact tracers.

"We're just not going to get out of this global pandemic with a clever app," he said.

In other news, experts warned earlier this month that Apple and Google's contact tracing apps could pose significant risks to people's privacy.

Apple Maps could soon reveal your nearest coronavirus testing centre.

And, the NHS's own app will reveal if you’ve been near someone who has coronavirus – and it could be the key to lifting Britain's lockdown.

What do you think of contact tracing apps? Let us know in the comments!

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