Google CEO Sundar Pichai (left) and Apple CEO Tim Cook.
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  • The UK has a fight on its hands to launch its official coronavirus-tracing app in the coming weeks, thanks to limits set by Apple and Google on how such apps work.
  • The government has already announced the app and it is thought to be in advanced stages of development.
  • But a new system announced by Apple and Google means that the app may not be able to track people's phones as closely as UK officials would like.
  • The NHS is in discussions with the two tech giants over its app, sources said, which is expected to launch in the coming weeks.
  • For mores stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

The UK has a fight on its hands to launch its much-vaunted contact-tracing app, which would monitor people diagnosed with or reporting Covid-19 symptoms and alert those they had been in contact with.

The experimental digital arm of the NHS - NHSX - has been developing a tracing app for some weeks, but was blindsided by a joint announcement last week by Apple and Google on a contact-tracing system that sets limits on how invasive such apps can be on iPhones or Android devices.

Now there's a conflict between the political win of getting the app out on time, and actually ensuring it works properly.

Apple and Google are not building an app themselves, but released a set of privacy-focused APIs in May on which governments and public health agencies like the NHS can base their own contact-tracing apps.

A key advantage of the system is that approved contact-tracing apps will be able to run in the background. Contact-tracing apps mostly rely on Bluetooth scanning, which normally isn't permitted to run in the background on iOS. For example, Singapore's Bluetooth-based TraceTogether app reportedly requires the user to leave their phone unlocked to work properly - a privacy risk and a battery drain. Adopting the Apple and Google system means approved apps would work properly even when a phone is locked, making it more likely people would actually download them.

But in order to access this better functionality, governments and public health authorities must ensure their apps meet the tech giants' privacy standards. The idea here is to ensure governments don't push out highly invasive apps that track people's movements through location data, or build up centralised databases of people's medical information.

According to people familiar with the matter, the NHSX app may not meet Apple and Google's privacy restrictions but has already been announced by the government and is at an advanced stage of development. These people said NHSX is in discussions with Apple currently.

Although the NHSX app is not expected to be especially invasive, sources suggested that NHSX's view of the ideal balance between specificity of tracing and privacy differs from that of Apple and Google. The cybersecurity arm of the UK's spy agency GCHQ, the NCSC, is also thought to be advising on the app.

Ross Anderson, a University of Cambridge professor who advised on the app's security and development, told BI that UK authorities want "fine-grained" contact tracing. The logic here is that it would enable the UK's epidemiologists to take more effective action in response to Covid-19.

Now it isn't clear that the app meets Apple and Google's standards, and whether it would work properly, particularly on the iPhone.

Anderson told Business Insider: "The NHSX people [have] this delightful choice between an app that won't work... or an app that will run on the platform but won't enable them to do the epidemiology they want."

Jon Crowcroft, Marconi professor of Communications Systems at the University of Cambridge, raised similar questions.

"Apple and Google's policies on all Covid-19 related apps was that if they came from a government health agency, subject to normal other checks, they'd be okayed," he told Business Insider, saying that it wasn't clear if the NHSX app might be blocked.

Ultimately, practicality may win out over politics. The obvious solution would be to rebuild the app on Apple and Google's APIs.

Another source said: "Everyone expects the [Department of Health] to rewrite their app to use the API, and claim victory."

NHSX and Apple did not return a request for comment.

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