COVID-19: Google and Apple’s contact tracing tech for smartphones now available in India but you can’t use it yet

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Published: June 29, 2020 1:08 PM

The government of India already has its own “comprehensive” COVID-19 tracing app called Aarogya Setu that works on both Android and iOS devices.

Google and Apple are also working to implement COVID-19 tracking within their respective operating systems. Image: Reuters

Google and Apple’s contact tracing tech for Android and iOS devices is now available in India (it has been available for iPhone since end of May and now it’s available for Android as well). The exposure notification API that would essentially allow governments and health agencies to build seemingly more effective COVID-19 contact tracing app(s) that would also be able to communicate seamlessly across all Android and iOS devices, is officially a go in India, but you can’t use it yet. And there’s a possibility that you may never be able to use it, at least not in its current form.

The government of India already has its own “comprehensive” COVID-19 tracing app called Aarogya Setu that works on both Android and iOS devices. While it would seem incorporating Google and Apple’s exposure notification API into Aarogya Setu would make it more useful (maybe), there’s a reason why it can’t happen. Google and Apple’s contact tracing tech explicitly requires apps (those built by governments and health agencies only) to meet certain tenets. Aarogya Setu doesn’t meet many of those tenets which means it can’t work with Google and Apple’s exposure notification API.

The first and foremost requirement for an app to be compatible with Google and Apple’s contact tracing tech is that it must be based on short-range Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) transmissions. Also, even though Google and Apple’s contact tracing tech involves sharing some data (that’s the minimum criteria for exposure detection) with concerned authorities, it’s done in the form of an anonymous key that is said to be reset every fifteen minutes, thereby adding an extra layer of security for users. Lastly, all of this is opt-in which means users are free to disclose their status with relevant apps at their own discretion.

“Access to the technology will be granted only to apps from public health authorities. All of the exposure notification matchings happen on your device, which means only you and your app know if you report having COVID-19 or been exposed to someone who has reported having COVID-19. Your identity is never shared with other users, Apple, or Google,” according to Google. The system is clearly designed for greater transparency and privacy, if Google and Apple are to be believed.

The fact that Aarogya Setu uses location or GPS is probably the biggest “limitation” why you can’t use Google and Apple’s contact tracing tech in India right now.

Google and Apple are also working to implement COVID-19 tracking within their respective operating systems so more and more apps will be able to make use of it. “This is a more robust solution than an API and would allow more individuals to participate, if they choose to opt in, as well as enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities” Google and Apple had said in a joint statement in April. This will hopefully allow users in India to make the most out of what Google and Apple have come up with (if they’re interested) but until then, the rollout makes little sense here.

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