Apple and Google created a coronavirus contact tracing API to help governments create their own apps – but an initial report suggests that take-up hasn’t been high. Just 22 countries and a handful of US states have so far requested access, and a subsequent iOS and Android update to allow contact tracing to work without an app appears to be some months away.

Some countries have created contact tracing apps that involve huge infringements of privacy. The one used in South Korea, for example, collects surname, sex, year of birth, residential district, profession, travel history, and more. China’s app is linked to a unique government ID, identifying specific individuals.

Many countries still haven’t managed to release a contact tracing app at all …

The US government has delegated contact tracing to individual states, few of which appear to have made much progress.

Most European countries are still working on their apps, with the UK admitting that its own app – which ignores all of the available privacy standards – won’t be ready on time.

In short, it’s a mess. The world has never had a more urgent need for an app to be developed swiftly and securely, and governments have almost universally demonstrated themselves not up to the task.

I should stress that I fully understand why Apple and Google went the route they did. They recognized that they had the technical capabilities to act quickly, but at the same time they didn’t want to be seen to be usurping the role of governments.

They took what, at the time, seemed an extremely sensible compromise approach: created an API, made it available to any government that wanted it, and even produced sample code that would allow any nation to create its own app with the minimum of effort. They basically did 99% of the job, and waited for governments to do the other 1%.

What should have then happened was for governments to say yes please, and to release apps the moment the API was available. That, however, hasn’t happened – and isn’t going to happen. We’ve had conflicting standards proposals. We’ve had long-winded debates. We’ve had white papers. We’ve had promises. What we haven’t had are contact tracing apps.

With the benefit of hindsight, this should have been obvious. Government IT projects typically take years, when what we needed was something available within weeks.

What Apple and Google really should have done was create their own apps, and just make localized versions available in each country.

Yes, that would still have required some level of government cooperation. To guard against hoaxes – people claiming they have been tested positive when they haven’t – we would still need government health services to validate the codes issued to those who’ve had a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. But Apple and Google could even have offered to host the necessary backend software on their own servers, so all hospitals had to do was upload the codes.

A single app each for iOS and Android, which Apple and Google could either have heavily promoted or even pushed to phones, would have seen far greater take-up than we’re ever likely to see for the random array of individual government apps.

It would have seemed presumptuous at the time. It would have risked some governments taking offence. But, honestly, the chances are that this approach would have been far more successful than the mess we have now.

That’s my view; what’s yours? Do you agree that, with the benefit of hindsight, official Apple and Google apps would have been the way to go? Or do you think that government apps are the better approach? Please take our poll, and share your thoughts in the comments.

Image: Matthew Roberts

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