According tomedia reports, the world is now developing new coronavirus contact tracking applications to help track the transmission path of the new coronavirus. But a beta version of the app, released in the UK this week, shows that they face huge challenges and, more importantly, it is not easy to design an effective app without the help of the tech giants that make the phones we are using.
The UK is understood to be one of the few countries to choose to develop its own contact tracking app, which is incompatible with the Contact Tracker app API that Google and Apple are currently developing. Instead of spreading data across devices, the UK concentrates the information it collects in a single database run by the NHS.
The government believes this will provide the NHS with a better understanding of the spread of the new coronavirus, while also allowing it to make decisions about which users are most at risk. Privacy advocates, however, warn that it creates new avenues for state surveillance. The UK government has previously pledged not to share its data collection with organisations outside the NHS, but that pledge now appears to have been broken. This suggests that other agencies may use this information for public health research in the future. That’s why Apple and Google ban any app from using their API, and another reason the UK has had to develop apps without company help.
In addition to privacy concerns, the researchers also found that there was a major problem in the UK in developing apps without Google and Apple: it simply couldnot work as advertised.
The core problem is that mobile security experts are familiar with: app permissions. Contact tracing apps use Bluetooth to create a log of a nearby device that uses the app and extend it to people the user has contacted. When a user is diagnosed with a new coronavirus or begins to show symptoms, the app pings the devices of these people.
The Apps for Google and Apple limit the way Bluetooth is used on iOS and Android devices. They do not allow developers to continuously transmit Bluetooth signals because this method has been used in targeted advertising in the past. According to the Register report, iOS apps can only send Bluetooth signals while the app is running in the foreground. If your iPhone is locked or the user isn’t looking at the app then there won’t be a signal. The latest version of Android references has similar restrictions, allowing only Bluetooth signals to be sent within minutes of the app’s shutdown. These limitations prevent devices from connecting to each other at close range, which makes contact tracking applications much less efficient.
But Google and Apple can rewrite these rules for their own contact tracking APIs because they control the operating system. But for countries like Britain that try to do it alone, these restrictions can be fatal. IPhone users who installed the app may never know they’ve been in contact with someone who has been diagnosed with the new corona virus if their phone doesn’t record their interactions.
The British government has suggested that it has created some unknown solutions to these problems, and of course, the way these agreements work is subtle and may be in Britain’s interest. For example, while iOS devices can’t always send Bluetooth signals, they can receive them from older Android devices. Doing so wakes up the software and allows applications to exchange important data.
So it’s fair to say that this UK app will work for urban environments, where people often use old and new iOS and Android devices. But experts say there is still a long way to go to find a reliable mechanism to track the spread of deadly diseases, especially given that iOS has a market share of more than 50 per cent in the UK.
Currently, the tracking app is only small-scale on the Isle of Wight. The Isle of Wight is off the south coast of England and has a population of 141,000.