Covid-19 exposure notification apps are becoming more widespread – in the last day one of the biggest countries to use Apple and Google’s system, the U.K., has released its app as part of the National Health Service’s efforts to control the virus.
The NHS Track and Trace app was downloaded more than a million times in its first day. However, it doesn’t work on every iPhone or Android phone, so some users have been concerned it’s a move to encourage smartphone sales. Here’s all you need to know.
Some iPhone 6 users have taken to Twitter to complain that the app only works, as one said, “on phones less than three years old”.
Is that true?
There’s more to it than that, though I hear the frustration of someone trying to sign up with a working-perfectly phone to discover it won’t do it.
However, while it’s true that the iPhone 6 isn’t compatible, let’s remember this is a phone which first went on sale six years ago.
Apple and Google, working together, have created a framework for the app to work on phones capable of doing contact-tracing effectively.
Both companies have managed to make this work on handsets going as far back as five years – the iPhone 6s was first released five years ago today and works with the app.
It also works on the following iPhones, running iOS 13.5 or later: iPhone 6s Plus, iPhone SE (1st generation), iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus, iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, iPhone X, iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, iPhone XR, iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone 11 Pro Plus, iPhone SE (2020). It also runs on the iPod touch 7th generation.
Google says phones running Android which date back that far are also covered.
It’s true that the iPhone 6 was still on sale three years ago, but for Apple and Google to reach back five years is pretty impressive and will cover many, though not all, the phones in current usage.
One other thing: as the app has already had over 1 million downloads, the fact that the disappointment expressed on social media has so far been pretty limited suggests to me that Apple and Google got things about right.
Why didn’t they make this work with even older phones?
The system requires Bluetooth, common on many phones, but also software and hardware capable of a high level of accuracy. To understand better, here’s a quick recap of how it works.
When two people are less than six feet (2 meters) from each other for more than a few minutes, their phones swap tokens. These Bluetooth identifiers are completely anonymized and do not contain location information to protect privacy.
If someone later tests positive for Covid-19 and opts into the track-and-trace app, the phones with the corresponding tokens in are notified that the user has been in close contact with someone with Covid-19. It encourages them to download the app and take further action.
So, how accurate is it?
Both Apple and Google have been working to improve the accuracy – after all, nobody wants distracting false positives – but the truth is that hardware before a certain date isn’t as good at measuring whether it’s six feet from someone else.
What about battery life?
That’s another reason for limiting what phones it works with. On earlier phones, this sophisticated system would likely be a drain on battery that many users would rightly be concerned about. In turn, this would probably discourage them from downloading the app in the first place.
Is the app secure?
I’ve been in touch with Apple about this, and an Apple spokesperson told me:
“We built the exposure notifications system to enable public health authorities in their efforts to develop apps to help reduce the spread of the virus while ensuring people can trust in the privacy-preserving design. We are committed to supporting the government’s effort to launch an app based on this technology.”
Certainly, this is a non-centralized approach, preventing users’ health data being collected in one place where it risks being compromised – a system the U.K. government had previously considered but later rejected.
Additionally, Apple and Google have been consistent in saying that the app is designed to augment, not replace, government actions.
What if I can’t install it?
If you have one of the iPhones listed above and it won’t run the app, go to Settings, then General and then Software Update. This will tell you whether you have the up-to-date software and if not, how to download it.
The NHS Track and Trace app is important and is already proving popular, so I’d say it’s worth downloading the latest software to run it.
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