Google and Apple release technology to help with COVID-19 contact tracing

New technology that could help alert people who have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 is being tested to determine if it will work in Australia.

Google and Apple have devised a COVID-19 exposure notification system they hope health authorities globally will use to build contract tracing apps and improve existing platforms, like Australia’s COVIDSafe.

It has been offered to governments across the world and so far 22 countries have requested and received access to the technology, including Australia.

“The Digital Transformation Agency and the Department of Health have been working with Apple and Google to understand and test the Exposure Notification Framework since it was released to see how it can be applied in Australia,” a spokesman for Government Services minister Stuart Robert said.

“That testing is ongoing.”

How does it work?

Apple and Google said the application programming interface (API) was designed to improve local contact tracing efforts and not replace them.

The pair said the technology could address some of the technical difficulties that have plagued contact tracing apps, including Australia’s COVIDSafe.

The API, like COVIDSafe, uses Bluetooth to create a log of other devices that come into close range.

While the government said COVIDSafe worked reliably on launch, Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) chief executive Randall Brugeaud later admitted an iPhone could not always record all the people it came into close contact with due to Bluetooth issues.

“The quality of the Bluetooth connectivity for phones that have the app installed running in the foreground is very good [but] it progressively deteriorates,” he said.

“You get to a point where the phone is locked and the app is running in the background.”

Subsequent software updates to COVIDSafe may have improved these issues, but the DTA is yet to clarify how it has enhanced the performance on iPhones.

“We are continuing the enhancement of the Bluetooth operation of the app on iPhones and it is working as designed,” said Department of Health Chief Information Officer Daniel Keys.

Apple and Google believe that without their assistance, contact tracing apps that rely on Bluetooth may have technical challenges and drain phone batteries.

They also said iPhones and Android phones that have downloaded contact tracing apps cannot easily detect each other without the API.

The technical challenges outlined by the companies suggest the COVIDSafe app is not able to collect all the data it was set out to do.

“Apple and Google cooperated to build … technology that will enable apps created by public health agencies to work more accurately, reliably and effectively across both Android phones and iPhones,” a spokesperson for Apple and Google said.

How are the API and COVIDSafe app different?

The COVIDSafe app keeps an encrypted log of everyone who also has the app on their device if they come into close contact with each other, but users cannot access that list.

But Thinking Cybersecurity CEO Vanessa Teague said there is a key difference in how Google and Apple want the data to be shared.

“It’s crucially different in the amount of information that passes through the central authorities,” she said.

Under the COVIDSafe app, health authorities ask permission to access the information about who an infected person has been in contact with and then uses it to notify those people.

Ms Teague said the Apple/Google system would mean health authorities are removed from the process.

While the exact operating details are unclear, it seems that if a person tests positive they can choose to report the diagnosis, which would then send a notification to those who had been in close contact.

“You get a notification on your phone that says you have been in proximity with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 so then you know, but at that point, the authorities don’t know that you have been potentially exposed,” she said.

Apple and Google would allow public health authorities to decide how to reach exposed individuals for further contact tracing — possibly by asking users to voluntarily share personal details, like a phone number.

But can we even use the API?

While the Department of Health examines whether the API can be used in conjunction with COVIDSafe, Apple and Google have made clear there are restrictions on its use that could complicate any moves by Australia to take up the system.

For example, while health authorities can ask users to share personal information such as a phone number to support contact tracing efforts, the companies’ spokespeople said the app cannot require it.

COVIDSafe currently asks the user to share a name, phone number, and postcode and age range before they can download the app.

Ms Teague said the API will likely fix technology problems associated with COVIDSafe such as Bluetooth connectivity, but the Government may not be inclined to give away the control it has to contact trace.

But she argued that if the Government adopted the API, more Australians could be inclined to sign up.

“That is the key democratic decision to be made,” she said.

“If we want a decentralised app, there will be less information available to a centralised government service.

“But maybe more people will use the app because they will be more willing to do so if that information isn’t being centralised.”

“Or, we could continue to insist on the centralised app knowing some people won’t use it because they don’t want that information shared about them.”

The Government will no doubt be looking to try and find a balance so that it can improve the technology of the app while being able to maintain control of contact tracing.

Health Minister Greg Hunt spoke with Apple’s vice-president for health, Dr Sumbul Desai, to discuss Australia’s health roadmap, which included screening tools and the COVIDSafe app.

Article Courtesy: www.abc.net.au/

Why COVIDSafe hasn’t helped, yet.

COVIDSafe was sold by the Government as essential to lifting coronavirus lockdown restrictions, but the app is yet to provide much assistance to local health authorities.

Since its launch on April 26, more than 6.2 million people have downloaded the app. But so far, no local health authorities have announced that COVIDSafe identified any otherwise unidentified contacts.

Authorities say that is because case numbers in Australia are so low.

“Australia is in a fortunate position with so few cases across the country, including returning travellers who would not have the app,” a Department of Health spokesperson said.

Data from the app has been accessed in around 30 coronavirus cases nationwide, during a period when around 565 new cases were diagnosed in Australia, including infections acquired overseas.

Nevertheless, health authorities continue to urge Australians to download it.

On the weekend, deputy chief medical officer Paul Kelly said COVIDSafe could prove useful for contact tracing if there was a spike in infections from recent Black Lives Matter protests, but only if people had the app on their smartphones.

One person who attended the protest in Melbourne on Saturday is among Victoria’s eight new coronavirus cases, however it’s not yet known if that person had the app.

“The COVIDSafe app would be absolutely critical and crucial in this type of setting. It’s exactly what it is designed to do, is to pick up cases when you don’t know the people around you,” Dr Kelly said.

“We’ve had a very good uptake of the COVIDSafe app, but the majority of people that have mobile phones have not downloaded the app so far.”

Contacts identified via manual contact tracing

In Victoria, the contact tracing app is yet to identify any close contacts of people diagnosed with COVID-19 that were not also identified via the traditional and painstaking manual contact tracing process.

That’s despite the state finding 21 coronavirus cases that had the app and allowed health authorities to access COVIDSafe data.

In May, Victoria announced that one potential exposure had been picked up by the app that manual contact tracers did not locate, but further investigation later found the interaction did not meet the close contact criteria.

“With only a small number of cases being reported each day in Victoria, there have been few opportunities to use the app so far — and we hope this continues,” a spokesperson for the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services said.

In New South Wales, low levels of community transmission have also provided few opportunities to use COVIDSafe.

A spokesperson for NSW Health said the state’s new cases over the past 15 days were predominantly people in hotel quarantine.

So far, data from COVIDSafe has been accessed fewer than 10 times in the state. It’s unclear whether close contacts were identified in those instances.

In Queensland, there have been no COVID-19 positive individuals identified as COVIDSafe users.

And in Tasmania, the Northern Territory, the ACT, Western Australia and South Australia, where there are few or no new coronavirus cases, local health departments told the ABC they have had no opportunity to use the app.

Data from COVIDSafe, which uses Bluetooth to transmit and record IDs from smartphones with the app that are within range, is uploaded with consent to a central database when someone is diagnosed with COVID-19.

It is then analysed to identify close contacts — considered to be those within approximately 1.5 metres, for a period of 15 minutes or more.

Measuring the success of COVIDSafe

It’s premature to judge the success of a public health intervention like COVIDSafe, according to Seth Lazar, who leads the Humanising Machine Intelligence project at the Australian National University.

“There’s just not enough cases and not enough time,” he said.

“For any measure you want to look at, you want to have enough cases and enough data.”

But it’s unclear how the contribution of COVIDSafe to Australia’s contact tracing regime will ultimately be measured, and there are few public benchmarks.

While more than 6 million Australians have downloaded it, this is still short of the 40 per cent of the population target first discussed as part of the Government’s plans to ease lockdown restrictions.

That goal has since fallen by the wayside. Acting Secretary for Health Caroline Edwards told a Senate committee investigating the COVID-19 pandemic response in May that there was no download target at all.

And while Australia’s low rate of community transmission provides few opportunities for use, the technical reliability of the app to transmit and collect data is still hotly debated.

Dr Lazar said contact tracing apps like COVIDSafe may provide the most benefit during a second wave of coronavirus infection, and that mass gatherings like the recent protests might provide a test for the app’s efficacy.

“It’s a scenario where you’re going to get anonymous close contacts, but it’s also a scenario where you may want a more privacy preserving approach,” he said.

The Digital Transformation Agency, which developed COVIDSafe, has released a number of updates to the app, including most recently the ability to download the app from non-Australian app stores — an important step, given the restriction risked preventing travellers, migrant workers and others from accessing the technology.

“The Australian community can have confidence the app is working securely and effectively, despite the lack of community transmission of COVID-19,” a DTA spokesperson said.

Article courtesy: www.abc.net.au