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Germany and Japan to launch decentralised Covid-19 apps

Image credit: German contact tracing app

The German and Japanese governments are expected to launch their Covid-19 contact-tracing apps this week. Both of these apps are based on a privacy-focused API developed by Apple and Google.

Covid-19 contact tracing involves identifying and notifying the contacts of an infected person, such that those who have been exposed can take action to prevent further transmission. Many countries consider contact tracing a necessary accompaniment to easing economically damaging lockdown measures while preventing a second wave of infections, along with social distancing, mass testing, and enhanced hygiene.

The German Health Minister Jens Spahn has told ARD television that the German contact-tracing app is “coming this week”, although he did not confirm reports that it would be launched on Tuesday.

The launch of the app follows some delays to ensure that the Bluetooth technology used to detect nearby users works at the appropriate distance. The app is intended as a supplement for a manual contact-tracing scheme.

The German app – which was built with the assistance of Deutsche Telekom and SAP – is based on the Exposure Notification API developed by Apple and Google. This toolkit uses a decentralised model, which stores and processes data on individuals’ devices rather than on a central server, among other privacy-focused measures such as preventing collection of location data. It is hoped that health authorities adopting the API will resolve some problems discouraging people from using contact-tracing apps, including lack of interoperability across borders and iOS restrictions on Bluetooth use.

The German government has pivoted from a centralised model (supported by the UK and France) to a decentralised model, in response to criticism from academics and privacy activists. Italy, Austria and Switzerland have also elected to use Apple and Google’s Exposure Notification API.

Reuters reported that Japan’s health ministry also plans to launch its contact-tracing app (also based on the Apple and Google API) this week. The app will not collect personal information such as names, phone numbers or location.

Meanwhile, the Norwegian data-protection regulator has ordered the country’s public health authorities to stop all collection of data via its centralised 'Smittestopp' contact-tracing app by 23 June. The data regulator asserted that the app – which was downloaded 1.6 million times and had nearly 600,000 active users as of 3 June – posed a disproportionate risk to user privacy.

The public health authority has released a statement outlining its disagreement with the ruling, although it has complied with the regulator’s request (having paused data collection and additionally deleted all data collected so far).

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