Last week we took a look at some of the different contact tracing apps that are being put together by various countries, and while there have been some major powers that have chosen to go their own way, some of them are having second thoughts as it becomes clear that their own home-baked solutions can’t hold a candle to the flexibility that the Apple-Google APIs are offering for their apps.
Notably, because Apple’s API is baked into iOS at the very lowest levels, it can be collecting the necessary contact tracing data no matter what the user is doing. By contrast, apps that don’t choose to use Apple’s method are forced to find kludgy workarounds or require that their users walk around with the app running on their iPhone pretty much all the time. In fact, the limitations in iOS are so serious that France got downright cranky about it.
While several other countries have seen the error of their ways and are grudgingly moving to the Apple-Google solution, there are others that have embraced it wholeheartedly from the start, and with Apple releasing the API in iOS 13.5 last week, the first COVID-19 contact tracing apps that take advantage of the new solution are beginning to appear, and they’re coming from some unlikely candidates.
In fact, according to Reuters, Latvia may be among the first countries to actually launch an app using the new Apple-Google framework in the form of its Apturi Covid (Stop Covid) app, which is expected to be released very soon to the Baltic nation’s two million users.
Even though others like Austria jumped on board sooner, their apps aren’t actually out yet, although we’ll probably see a flurry of new apps arriving in the new few days. Switzerland, for example, has already announced the limited release of its SwissCovid app for testing by employees at l’Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) along with other medical researchers and hospital staff.
According to Reuters, however, it also looks like several European countries, including Latvia and Switzerland as well as Germany and Estonia are banding together to find a way to allow their individual COVID-19 contact tracing apps to talk to each other across their borders, which would allow them to loosen travel restrictions within their collective borders by allowing users to “roam” between countries while still being able to take advantage of contact tracing data should they later be diagnosed with COVID-19.
While the Apple-Google API currently relies on third-party apps to make use of the data collected by users’ iPhones, it doesn’t otherwise seem to limit where that data can be collected according to geographical boundaries. While it does appear that the API needs to be “unlocked” to be enabled in a user’s country, this is likely tied to the actual release of a contact tracing app by that country’s government, however this is also based on the regional setting of the user’s iPhone, and has nothing to do with their actual physical location.
The bottom line, however, is that it seems likely that the Apple-Google API will provide even more opportunities for this kind of interoperability across international borders.
Outside of Europe, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also recently announced that the Canadian government is already working with Apple and Google on a single, national contact tracing app.
While some Canadian provinces such as Alberta have already released their own contact tracing apps, the Canadian government has stated that it is looking to endorse a single app for the whole nation, alleviating some fears of a patchwork of apps that could make the whole system far less effective.
As Trudeau notes, this is also Apple’s preferred approach, although it has left the door open to make exceptions for regional apps, which is the approach that has been taken in the U.S. thus far, with individual apps for each state, which could ultimately lead to a fragmented system making it difficult to get accurate contact tracing information as users travel across state borders.