Apple Blocks Update to UK NHS Contact Tracing App for Breaking Location Data Collection Rules

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Apple and Google have blocked an update to England and Wales’ contact tracing app that included a feature that would have collected user location data, breaking the companies terms and conditions for contact tracing apps, the BBC reports.

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Last year, Apple and Google partnered up to announce a COVID-19 contact tracing API that allows apps to track whether someone has been in contact with an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19.

When visiting a shop, restaurant or other public venue, users can scan a QR code to indicate that they’ve been at that location. Using the API, the NHS app checks a database to look for a match, and can inform the user if they need to self-quarantine and/or get tested if someone at the same location recorded a positive COVID-19 test result that was flagged by other means.

The U.K.’s National Health Service in England and Wales had planned to release an update to its app that would have asked COVID-19 positive users to upload a log of their QR code check-ins. However, according to the terms and conditions which govern Apple and Google’s contact tracing API, any app that uses the API cannot collect user location data.

As a result, both companies have refused to make the update available for download on their respective app distribution platforms. The previous version of the NHS app, however, remains available for download.

The plan had been to ask users to upload logs of venue check-ins – carried out via poster barcode scans – if they tested positive for the virus. This could be used to warn others.

But the two firms had explicitly banned such a function from the start.

Under the terms that all health authorities signed up to use Apple and Google’s privacy-centric contact-tracing tech, they had to agree not to collect any location data via the software.

As a result, Apple and Google refused to make the update available for download from their app stores last week and have instead kept the old version live.

As the BBC notes, the NHS app has always included the ability for users to scan a QR code when visiting a public establishment. However, code was only used to check a database that had been generated by other means by local authorities following a viral outbreak.

The now rejected update would have changed that, by asking users who had tested positive to upload their QR code checks-in to the cloud. A spokesperson for the Department of Health told the BBC that “The deployment of the functionality of the NHS Covid-19 app to enable users to upload their venue history has been delayed.”

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