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Apple-Google alliance welcomed by European coronavirus app platform

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By Douglas Busvine
·2 min read
A 3D printed Google logo is placed on the Apple Macbook in this illustration
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By Douglas Busvine

BERLIN (Reuters) - An Apple collaboration with Google will make it quicker to get systems for tracing coronavirus infections up and running, the prime mover behind a European effort to support the smartphone technology says.

Technologists are racing to use Bluetooth short-range communications between devices as a proxy for measuring the risk that a person infected with the coronavirus can pass it on.

Apple <AAPL.O> and Alphabet's <GOOGL.O> Google said last week that they would launch tools to support such applications in May, with full integration of Bluetooth contact tracing functions into their operating systems to follow.

Chris Boos, who is championing the Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT https://www.pepp-pt.org) technology platform, says this can help shorten the path to deployment.

"We need to worry less about operating system stability and device calibration," Boos, the founder of German business process automation startup Arago, said in written answers to Reuters.

PEPP-PT plans a progress update on Friday.

CHAIN OF INFECTION

The coronavirus can be spread by people who show no symptoms, increasing the urgency of efforts once an individual tests positive to break the chain of infection.

Digital technology can help give people targeted warnings to see their doctors or self-isolate, its backers say, reducing the need for lockdowns that have caused huge economic disruption.

Bluetooth advocates say it would be a more accurate and less intrusive way of logging the closeness and duration of personal contacts than location tracking based on networks or satellites.

But a divide has opened up between supporters of decentralized systems - including Apple and Google - and advocates of a centralised approach in which sensitive data is held on a server. The latter includes some governments, raising concerns that they could put citizens under surveillance.

PEPP-PT, being developed in partnership with Germany's Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute and technologists from other European countries, would support both models.

"A centralized model offers such much better pandemic management potential without infringing privacy," Boos said.

"But it should be a country's choice. You can gather the same data on top of a decentralized model - it just means more people have to move data on infected people."

PEPP-PT is undergoing certification by Germany's cybersecurity watchdog and has drawn support from some leaders in Chancellor Angela Merkel's government.

No decision has yet been made, however, to endorse an official contact-tracing app to run on PEPP-PT that experts say https://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/04/09/science.abb6936 would need to be downloaded by at least 60% of the population to help achieve so-called digital herd immunity.

(Reporting by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Alexander Smith)