Germany backing Apple-Google approach on smartphone contact tracing

Germany changed approach on Sunday regarding which type of smartphone app to use to track coronavirus infections, backing as a growing number of other European countries, an approach promoted by Apple and Google.

Example of proposal for a location-based COVID-19 contact tracing app (see Ferretti et all. , “Quantifying SARS-CoV-2 transmission suggests epidemic control with digital contact tracing” , licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license)

Countries are currently accellerating the development of apps that will provide data about the risk of catching the coronavirus, because the chain of transmission is demonstrating to be difficult to stop since can be contagious also those that are showing no symptoms.

Chancellery Minister Helge Braun and Health Minister Jens Spahn announced in a joint statement that Germany intends to adopt a โ€œdecentralisedโ€ approach to tracing apps, abandoning the alternative that would have left to health authorities centralised control over tracking data.

The decentralised approach allow users to choose if share their phone number or symptom details, supporting health authorities in the task to communicate and give advice to users over the best measures to adopt if they are at risk.

Germany backed on Friday a centralised standard called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT), that for Apple in particular would have required modifications to the settings of the iPhone.

When Apple refused to move in that direction remained no alternative to change approach, according to a senior government source. In fact Apple and Google said this month they would develop new tools to support decentralised contact tracing. Although France and Britain still back centralisation.

Apps using Bluetooth for contact tracing assess the closeness and length of contact between people. For centralised apps on Appleโ€™s iPhone, while Bluetooth exchanges happen, the device would need to be unlocked with the app running in the foreground causing a drain on the battery.

However the iPhone will integrate decentralised protocols such as DP-3T, that is developed by a Swiss-led team and that is supported by Switzerland, Austria and Estonia.

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