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Apple, Google in a 'standoff' with Germany and France over contact tracing privacy

The Apple and Google contact tracing system will allow apps to run in the background on iOS. But to use it, developers must agree to a decentralized approach.

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Apple and Google are currently at loggerheads with German and French officials over security technicalities in iOS and questions of how to store contact tracing data.

The two tech giants on April 10 announced a joint initiative to develop a cross-platform, system-level framework for contact tracing — a method to track and possibly mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Similar techniques are being explored by nations across the globe, but several European countries are in disagreement with Apple and Google on how to go about it.

Tensions over contact tracing implementation escalated on Friday as Apple and Google shot down demands by France and Germany to back their national endeavors or ease the stringent privacy restrictions the two tech companies are building into their own, Reuters reported.

The standoff was sparked by two major factors. For one, Apple's iOS software has a security feature that bars apps that send data over Bluetooth from using the short-range communications protocol in the background. Without the ability to run in the background, contact tracing apps are severely hampered as users would be required to keep the apps open and their phones unlocked.

Earlier in April, French officials urged Apple to drop that restriction in iOS to allow its own contact tracing app to work properly.

The ability to use Bluetooth in the background to track whether a smartphone user has come into contact with someone who tests positively COVID-19 is one of the core features of Apple and Google's contact tracing system, which will be a framework that public health agencies can use to build their own apps. But Apple and Google are requiring developers to handle data in a decentralized manner, with no information leaving a user's device until they receive a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. Both companies seem unwilling to waver on those protocols.

"Those privacy principles are not going to change," said Gary Davis, Apple's global director of privacy. "They are fundamental privacy principles that are needed to make this work."

That's the other part of the standoff. France and Germany, along with the UK's National Health Service, have apparently opted for a centralized contact tracing solution with user data stored on a central server. Because of that, they won't be able to use the Apple and Google API, which brings those apps back to the issue of Bluetooth in the background. Without that key feature, there are serious doubts about the efficacy of digital contact tracing measures.

European authorities, for their part, are expressing frustration over the dustup. One French official said that EU states "are being completely held hostage by Google and Apple."

Apple and Google on Friday announced refined technical details about its contact tracing endeavor, which is actually on-track to launch early on April 28.