Apple, Google Start to Win Over Europe to Their Virus-Tracking Technology

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The continent that helped lead a backlash against Silicon Valley’s appetite for personal data is increasingly aligning itself with technology built by Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google to blaze a path out of the coronavirus pandemic.

Countries across Europe, like others in the developed world, are building their own smartphone apps to help conduct contact tracing. The aim of the apps is to help public-health officials identify and test everyone who has spent time near an infected person, to better understand and contain the virus.

European countries including Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands have opted for or are considering technical standards for these apps that are developed by Apple and Google. In some cases, they have switched to the Silicon Valley model after first trying homegrown options.

The embrace of Apple and Google protocols by European countries contrasts with the approach in the U.S., where state and local authorities are taking the lead on digital contact-tracing efforts. In the U.S., the debate over what type of apps to build has focused in part on whether to collect and compare users’ locations using satellite-based tools embedded in most smartphones — something Apple and Google aren’t allowing with their exposure-notification system.

The movement toward Apple and Google in Europe is being driven in part by the same officials who previously have gone after U.S. tech giants over privacy concerns and other issues. European privacy regulators say they have a preference for systems like the one being developed by Apple and Google because they use a decentralized approach to data gathering — collecting little of it centrally and keeping most of it on users’ phones.

Margrethe Vestager, the European Commission’s competition czar, has long tangled with Apple and Google on anticompetitive concerns. She is now backing the type of technology the pair is using for contact tracing, in part to promote an interoperable framework across the continent.

“It’s important to have a common European approach, and right now the tendency is toward a decentralized system,” Ms. Vestager told the European Union’s parliament last week, adding that she hopes such apps will “enable at least some traveling during the summer period.”

A rival approach for building contact-tracing apps involves collecting and storing data at centralized depositories, which governments or health-care systems can hold onto and use. France, Norway, and the U.K. have said they want public-health authorities to control and learn from the data generated from tracing the contacts of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of infected citizens over the coming months.

The U.K. has said epidemiologists need this information to see transmission patterns and guide public policy. French officials say it is safer for the state to control the information of infected people. Both say anonymization and other built-in safeguards limit human access to personal data, protecting privacy.

Britain’s state-run National Health Service is testing its own custom app based on a centralized approach. But it is also working on a backup plan — an Apple/Google-standardized model that could replace the first app if it doesn’t work as well as expected, people familiar with the work say.

The U.K. and French officials have been frustrated by limitations to some crucial app functions imposed by Apple and Google, which they worry could hurt the government’s ability to collect useful data, according to people familiar with the matter.

Apple and Google declined to comment on any specific country’s efforts or apps. The companies say they developed their system to help public-health authorities around the world and have adapted it based on their feedback. Privacy is a core of the system because it will help build user trust and adoption, the companies say.

The strategy of using phone data to help track potentially infected people has been used, with varying degrees of success, since the beginning of the outbreak earlier this year. Some countries in Asia have tapped into cellular-network data for location information to track who was near infected people. Singapore built a voluntary app, TraceTogether, to track contacts, but it wasn’t widely adopted and hasn’t so far had a significant impact.

Like TraceTogether, apps popping up across Europe mostly use Bluetooth — a technology commonly used to link wireless speakers and keyboards — to determine who was close to whom, rather than location-based tools. A group representing EU privacy regulators said tapping into phones’ location data for contact tracing would reveal too much sensitive information about users.

Phones running Bluetooth contact-tracing systems, like the one designed by Apple and Google, emit a unique ID number that changes frequently. They also record the ID numbers of any phone in proximity for more than, say, five or 10 minutes.

Most of the apps in use or in development in Europe rely on users voluntarily reporting when they are confirmed to be infected. In the decentralized model employed by Apple and Google, an infected person’s phone uploads information about all of the ID numbers it has broadcast over a set time period, typically the last 14 days, to a temporary server. Other phones check that server to see if any of the IDs are among those they have recorded. If one matches, then the app notifies the user.

In the centralized model, the infected person’s phone uploads a list of the ID numbers it has encountered in the set time period. A central server then determines any encounters with infected users. It notifies those exposed but also retains the data involved.

Proponents of the centralized model say it gives a government or health system more information about how the virus travels and who could be affected. Detractors say that gives the government too much information about the social interactions of too many people and would be incompatible with decentralized apps.

In recent weeks, Germany, Italy, and Ireland have switched to the Apple-Google system or a compatible decentralized model, joining Austria and Switzerland. Italy, the first European country badly hit by the virus, planned a homegrown model. It switched to the Apple/Google standard “because it’s simpler to adopt,” said a person familiar with the matter.

Belgium and the Netherlands are also moving toward that model. The Netherlands is considering building an app using the Apple-Google framework, a health ministry spokesman said. In Belgium, the government and major parties are supporting a bill, set to be voted on later this month, to require any contact-tracing apps to use Bluetooth and be decentralized.

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