Despite attempts by many countries to roll their own solutions for contact tracing in smartphone apps, more public health organizations are conceding the fact that perhaps Apple and Google are onto something with their joint exposure notification API.
We’ve observed this week how contact tracing apps using the new API have been overwhelmingly popular; countries that have decided to partner with Apple and Google have been able to deploy apps much more quickly and efficiently, while those that are bucking the trend continue to struggle with their own home-baked solutions. Even the U.K., which was originally a vocal opponent of the Apple-Google solution, has grudgingly conceded that it might just be the better way to go, especially after privacy advocates pilloried the country’s National Health Service (NHS) for trying to create a more privacy-invasive app of Orwellian proportions.
While several countries in Europe have already released contact tracing apps using the Apple-Google method, we’re now seeing the tech arrive in North America in a big way, as Canada announces that it has developed a new national contract tracing app that will use the Apple-Google Exposure Notification API.
The new app was built by an unlikely consortium of partners that included e-commerce developer Shopify and the mobile device maker Blackberry (yes, they’re still around), along with the Government of Ontario. However, despite the involvement of the provincial-level government, the project was led by the national government’s Canadian Digital Service initiative.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the plan for the new app yesterday during his regular daily press briefing, noting that it will begin testing in Ontario before being rolled out across the country.
Trudeau was careful to emphasize that the app will be “completely voluntary” at every stage, and that those who test positive for COVID-19 will have the option of having a health-care professional help them “upload their status anonymously to a national network.”
While the province of Alberta was one of the first local governments to release its own contact tracing app, Trudeau said last month that the federal government wanted a single app for the whole country to avoid fears of a patchwork of local apps that would make the whole system less effective, and would especially limit contact tracing across provincial borders.
The new mobile app will be called COVID Alert and will become available for download for residents of Ontario on July 2. A straw poll by iPhone in Canada currently suggests that the majority of Canadians — at least those Canadians that read tech blogs — are receptive to the new app.
Big in Japan
If the Apple-Google partnership for the contact tracing API wasn’t enough evidence that trying times can make for unlikely allies, Japan has brought another player to the table, rolling out a contact tracing app this week that was developed by none other than Microsoft.
To be clear, Microsoft isn’t rolling its own contact tracing solution, but rather developing an app for the Japanese government that uses the Apple-Google exposure notification platform. So in this sense, Microsoft’s role in the app’s development wasn’t unlike Blackberry’s involvement in building the Canadian app, although it appears that Microsoft engineers did all of the work in this case, rather than leveraging a partnership of multiple companies.
According to Nikkei, Japanese officials contracted MIcrosoft last month after Code for Japan the Tokyo-based team that had originally been working on the project was forced to abandon it due to Apple and Google’s strict set of rules around the use of the technology that required that the app could only be managed by public health agencies.
The app, which has been dubbed COCOA, for COVID-19 Contact-Confirming Application, will use the standard Apple-Google exposure notification system, which means Bluetooth proximity detection privacy and securely collected on each device in a decentralized approach. If a person confirms that they’ve tested positive for COVID-19, the app will look at the last two weeks’ worth of contact tracing data and inform everybody who was in close proximity to the person during that time.