Switzerland has become the first country to develop contact-tracing app using Google and Apple’s Application Programming Interface (API). The EPFL institute helped to develop the contact-tracing app called the SwissCovid app.
Apple and Google teamed up to create the API to enable countries and cities to key into it and develop contact-tracing apps using Bluetooth, and collect only necessary information from users.
The API gives special access to some features of their iOS and AOS mobile operating systems. However, it came with many restrictions that many governments have criticized. Among others, it forbids gathering location information, access to collected data, unless it is needed by health authorities.
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“The use of digital technologies must be designed in such a way that we, as democratically elected governments, evaluate it and judge it acceptable to our citizens and in accordance with our European values,” wrote digital affairs ministers from German, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese governments in a joint letter published in the press.
“We believe that challenging this right by imposing technical standards represents a misstep and a missed opportunity for open collaboration between governments and the private sector.”
France was at the forefront of the push for Apple and Google to relax the restrictions. But the crux of the matter is that, collection of more than the needed data will scare users, who are expected to download the apps voluntarily.
Despite the concerns, the API and the contact-tracing apps that will be developed through it have been seen as a milestone in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic. Marcel Salathé, an epidemiologist at the Swiss research institute EPFL said the API will provide a watershed moment for contact-tracing app.
“The release of these APIs along with the operating system updates will be a watershed moment for the development and adoption of proximity-tracing apps,” he said.
Salathé added that the protocol should be made interoperable, which means it should be used to contact-traced citizens when they move to other regions. He believes it will help to reduce travel restrictions imposed due to the fear of the spread of the virus.
However, there is concern that Bluetooth enabled proximity-tracing will fall short in efficiency due to its short range transmitting capacity.
“Bluetooth was not developed for this kind of large-scale distance measurement,” said prof. Srdjan Capkun from the ETH institute. “Making sure that we can use it this way requires a lot of engineering skill and collaboration, including collaboration with Apple and Google.”
Despite the seeming challenge, Apple and Google said that public health agencies from 22 countries and some US states had already asked to test the system.
Switzerland hopes to release the app to the general public by mid-June, but it must be debated first by MPs. Swiss government spokeswoman told the BBC that the app has been approved by Apple to appear on its App Store, but Google is yet to give developers the permission to list it on its Play Store.
“Of course we would be very happy to be the first [national launch], but the most important thing is to help our inhabitants fight the virus,” she added.
One of the major issues involving the contact-tracing app has been government’s approval. The app has sparked debates in parliaments around the world. In April, France postponed its debate on the use of the app in the fight against coronavirus to focus on more critical aspects of the crisis. While the decision was based on priorities at that time, other countries continued their debate focused on the implications.
Netherlands was leading the quest to be the first national launch until the debate on privacy, security and technicalities got in the way. From Cyprus to India, the debate crosses many parliaments as each country seeks to work out what is best for them. Using the API was the larger part of it.
While they tackle privacy related issues, how citizens would be made to use the app became the bone of contention. Some countries are considering a legislative law that will compel everyone to download and use the app, for others, it will be based on well publicized need.
The debate hurdle appears to have been scaled by many countries, as the roll out of the contact-tracing app keeps increasing, even in countries using the API. Latvia said it’s coming after Switzerland, as the race to contain the coronavirus outbreak continues.