The World’s First Contact-Tracing App is Live

contact tracing

The world’s first contact-tracing app is live using google and apple api.

Built on the backbone of the API jointly developed by Google and Apple, the world’s first contact-tracing app has launched as a large-scale pilot in Switzerland. Dubbed SwissCovid, several thousand users who have been identified as belonging to “pilot populations” like the army and some hospital staff can now access this device.

SwissCovid is designed to quickly track and warn users who have been in long-term contact with someone who has tested the COVID-19 virus positively in an effort to control disease spread. Sign-up is voluntary and the app is expected to be available to the wider public by mid-June, subject to the tool being given the green light by the Swiss Parliament.

The app’s pilot version is also available to employees of Lausanne’s EPFL University and Zurich’s ETH University, which led technology development. The two Swiss institutions agreed to create the software based on a concept jointly put forward last month by Apple and Google, which was pitched by the tech giants as the best way to grow contact-tracing technology that enhances privacy by design.

Apple and Google’s API follow a decentralized approach , meaning that every operation that could involve privacy is performed on the phones of users, rather than through a central database. At the heart of the definition is the principle that data is not stored and thus at risk of theft or de-anonymization.

Apple released iOS 13.5 last week which includes a new feature of the COVID Exposure Notification. This feature allows for the API that enables health officials and developers to improve contact tracing technology.

EPFL and ETH worked on their own protocol, called Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (DP3 T), in parallel. Researchers were in ongoing talks with Apple and Google to allow compatibility between DP3 T and the tech giants’ API, according to the university team. This means that the Swiss DP3T-based software will migrate to the protocol of Apple and Google as soon as it is widely accessible, and easily integrate with iOS and Android apps.

Marcel Salathé, an associate professor at the EPFL who worked on DP3 T, told ZDNet: “We’ve been working on DP3 T since the start of the crisis, and we’ve based it on a decentralized model primarily because of privacy concerns. Google and Apple revealed their API a week or so after we went public and publicly said it was heavily influenced by our protocol,” he said.

“That’s why it was a no-brainer for us. Most of the things we ‘d suggested with DP3 T were in Apple and Google ‘s API, and would be in iOS and Android. We’ve been working with them ever since to make sure they understand where we come from.”

For the past month, scientists at the two Swiss universities tested and fine-tuned DP3 T, with the help of the Swiss Army. The protocol operates via Bluetooth, continuously transmitting character strings between smartphones at random and impossible to guess. All signals are stored locally, for a maximum of 14 days on the devices. If a user measures COVID-19 positively, they will then share the keys stored on their phone which were picked up on the days they were contagious.

The app then finds out which contacts were at risk – those that lasted more than 15 minutes and occurred less than two meters from another user – and generates a notification indicating the risk day and the procedure to follow.

The decentralized principle at the core of DP3 T, and the API of Apple and Google, is not without defects. Experts have repeatedly stressed the lack of reliability in the system. Without a central organization monitoring the warnings, and ensuring that only vulnerable users are alerted, there is a possibility that the software will get swamped with false positives and transform to total chaos.

Additionally, a centralized approach would allow health services to carry out data analytics to better understand how the disease spreads. For these reasons, NHS in the UK agreed to snub Apple and Google ‘s API, and introduce its own unified protocol instead.

“I have some sympathy with the idea that with more data, you can improve your knowledge of the outbreak,” Salathé said. “That’s accurate, but I don’t think on the back of an epidemiological argument we should develop a potentially very intrusive technology. Let’s not use this tool to find out more about a virus, but let’s use it to support regular contact tracing.”

The scientists behind the Swiss app also argued that the tool ‘s effectiveness depends on its widespread public adoption; and the way to attain confidence is to minimize information gathering. Carmela Troncoso, who worked at EPFL University on the DP3 T protocol, said: “Our aim is to offer a solution that can be implemented in Europe and around the world. There are millions of users, and we owe them transparency.”

In a webinar, SwissCovid ‘s developers further emphasized that the technology had been built to protect public confidence. Troncoso said users can decide to stop using the app at any time and permanently delete it from their devices.

Building a technology using Apple and Google ‘s API, of course, also has some technical advantages: the creation of a tool that is immediately compatible with iOS and Android has some obvious advantages. In that respect, the UK’s homemade app, which is currently being tested on the Isle of Wight, may need some more tweaking: the technology has been reported to have a profound impact on battery life for users with older iPhones.

Salathé said: “I assume that other countries like the UK will eventually go down the decentralized route, because compatibility is key. You want to have a tool that works on user phones, and Google and Apple control 99.5 percent of operating systems. I’m a little puzzled that there’s still a debate.”

The route to deployment for the NHS app has certainly not been smooth. The government has now acknowledged that the tool would not be ready until June, from an initial launch date scheduled for mid-May.

Moreover, concerns were raised that the centralized approach of the United Kingdom would not allow interoperability with other European systems that tend to favor decentralization – and that this might affect the ability of Britons to travel abroad.

It has recently emerged that the UK government has hired private company Zuhlke to investigate the possibility of moving the NHS contact-tracing system to Apple and Google ‘s API. The terms of the £3.9 million contract include researching the “complexity, efficiency and feasibility of integrating native Apple and Google contact tracing APIs within the current mobile proximity framework and p.

On the other hand, Apple and Google stated last week that they had requested access to their API from 22 countries, as well as some US states.

Jennifer Thomas
Jennifer Thomas is the Co-founder and Chief Business Development Officer at Cybers Guards. Prior to that, She was responsible for leading its Cyber Security Practice and Cyber Security Operations Center, which provided managed security services.