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Google and Apple block NHS COVID-19 contact tracing app update over privacy issues

The UK government is bungling yet another aspect of the pandemic response as it appears Google and Apple have blocked a recent update to the NHS COVID-19 contact tracing app over location sharing issues.

According to the BBC, this recent update was supposed to be made available on the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store simultaneously as nationwide lockdowns ease over ahead of the full removal of restrictions on June 21. The NHS COVID-19 contact tracing app uses the Exposure Notification API, which is a joint effort between Apple and Google to provide the core functionality for building apps that are capable of notifying users of possible contact with those with confirmed COVID-19 cases.

It works like many other contact tracing apps, where you are asked to scan a QR code when checking into a venue such as a restaurant or bar to confirm a visit. This latest update would have asked users testing positive to upload their location logs — provided they were happy to do so — for further central analysis to determine potential virus hotspots.

Google and Apple determined that the NHS COVID-19 app update violated their terms as apps utilizing the API must “not share location data from the user’s device with the public health authority, Apple, or Google.” Furthermore, terms and conditions state that “a contact tracing app may not use location-based APIs” or “collect any device information to identify the precise location of users.”

Even though this option was considered “opt-in,” it breached Google and Apple contact tracing policies, meaning both tech firms were forced to turn down or block the latest app update — which has not been updated since March 18, 2021, on the Google Play Store.

A spokesperson for the Department for Health and Social Care said: “The deployment of the [enhanced check-in] functionality of the NHS COVID-19 app to enable users to upload their venue history has been delayed. This does not impact the functionality of the app, and we remain in discussions with our partners to provide beneficial updates to the app which protect the public.”

It’s still highly likely that Google or Apple will allow the NHS COVID-19 app update to arrive in any form. Especially as this would set a precedent if other nations wanted to make similar changes of their own.

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Avatar for Damien Wilde Damien Wilde

Damien is a UK-based video producer for 9to5Google. Find him on Twitter @iamdamienwilde. Email

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