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Explained: What Apple-Google Covid feature does, why it doesn’t work in India

Apple-Google contact tracing app: The companies are asking for more privacy in the contact tracing applications they partner with.

Written by Karishma Mehrotra | New Delhi |
Updated: June 30, 2020 9:04:46 am
apple google contact tracing app, covid contact tracing app, apple google app, coronavirus news Both Apple and Google have taken a strong stand of prioritising user privacy over Covid-fighting efforts.

In April, rivals Google and Apple made an unprecedented move of joining hands to help governments in tracing contacts of Covid-19-positive people. On Sunday, the “COVID-19 exposure notifications” feature appeared on Android and Apple phones everywhere. But that means very little for those living in India.

Apple-Google contact tracing app: Does it not work in India?

As of now, it does not. The feature will only work in a phone that has downloaded an application that it works with. “What we have built is not an app — rather public health agencies will incorporate the API into their own apple that people install,” the companies said in a release.

In other words, the software links up to the government’s own contact tracing applications through an API, or application programming interface. An API is a highway that allows two programs to speak to each other, and it is different from a single application installed in your phone.

India’s contact-tracing application, Aarogya Setu, has not linked up to the Apple-Google API. A likely reason is the fact that the API does not allow location data to be retrieved, which Aarogya Setu does. “The public health authority app is not allowed to use your phone’s location,” a Google blog states. Another potential reason is that the API does not allow public authorities to collect phone numbers from their users. The Aarogya Setu application collects such information during registration.

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The “Exposure Notification API” is off by default and requires users to opt in. Since Indian users cannot opt in anyway, the API is not collecting data from their phones.

How does it work in the countries that are using it?

If two people meet for more than five minutes, their phones exchange an identifier via Bluetooth. If one of those people later tests positive and the data enters the government’s application, their contacts from the last 14 days are uploaded to the cloud. The person that the now-positive user had met will be matched as a previous contact and will be alerted with a notification on their phone.

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Before this software update, in an interim step, the companies had released this feature in an application-form, requiring a user to download it. Now, the update is a built-in feature that can be turned on or off.

Does it clash with contact-tracing apps of other countries?

The companies are asking for more privacy in the contact tracing applications they partner with. This is creating a tussle between governments and the companies, with several governments frustrated that the companies are asking them to collect less data.

One of the main aspects of this debate is a “centralised” versus a “decentralised” model. For example, the UK’s former approach was to keep all the data about all suspected infected people in a centralised database, while the Apple-Google model stores the information on the user’s phone and only uploads it in certain circumstances. France was another country that clashed with Apple.

Aarogya Setu stores most data on the user’s phone and uploads it under listed circumstances. But it collects more data (location, numbers), which the API does not allow.

Both Apple and Google have taken a strong stand of prioritising user privacy over Covid-fighting efforts.

Also Read| Here’s how Google, Apple COVID-19 contact tracing tool will work

Which countries are using it?

There is no official list from the companies but according to news reports, these countries have released applications that hooks up to the feature: Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Ghana, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Latvia, Philippines, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, the UK, and Uruguay.

Other countries that have announced upcoming plans include Canada, Netherlands, Spain, and certain US states. Norway is comparing its own location-taking application to the Google-Apple model.

The UK made a U-turn and decided to drop its own application and use the companies’ feature, after their application was found to have huge security flaws. Germany made a similar turn around earlier.

What is the big deal with location data?

This tussle over location data is a key part of the privacy versus contact tracing debate. While location data can help authorities determine hotspots (which Aarogya Setu does), there are fears that tracking and surveillance are enabled far more in a location-taking feature.

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