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Apple dictating countries’ contact-tracing app policies won’t help its EU anti-trust probe

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There’s a growing problem with Apple’s role in the contact-tracing apps that countries are developing to help fight the coronavirus pandemic. This has been underlined by the UK’s announcement that its long-awaited NHSx app is being parked in favor of a different model recommended by Apple and Google.

Apple is effectively dictating to governments the privacy levels that their contact-tracing apps must meet. Unless apps meet Apple’s requirements, they can’t get access to Bluetooth in the background on users’ phones, which is essential for the apps to work properly (Google takes a more laissez-faire approach, without these restrictions).

Apple’s approach arguably fits a wider narrative about the company being heavy-handed in determining what apps are allowed on iPhones. The company has just been made the subject of an EU antitrust investigation for similar reasons. There are also limitations to the alternative Apple/Google model that could make contact-tracing apps less effective.

What Apple wants …

Contact-tracing apps aim to prevent the spread of the coronavirus by monitoring who a person comes into contact with. If any contact is likely to be infected, the app triggers a warning telling the user to self-isolate and get tested. Such apps have already launched in numerous countries.

The UK’s approach had been to hold the data used by the app to determine who is probably infected in a central database. But this fell foul of Apple’s restrictions, which favor keeping the data on people’s phones instead – the so-called decentralized model.

[Read: How major US cities are using location data to make key decisions about COVID-19]

As UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said, the NHSx app might have worked but for Apple’s unwillingness to negotiate on the restrictions. Developers also have to contend with a special addendum to the App Store’s standard legal agreement.

Apple did not reply to requests for comment in time for publication. Google welcomed the UK announcement and said that its approach had been developed “based on consultation with public health experts around the world, including in the UK, to ensure that our efforts are useful to authorities as they build their own apps to limit the spread of COVID-19, while ensuring privacy and security are central to the design”.