NHS COVID-19 app update blocked by Apple, Google over location privacy fears


An update for the NHS's COVID-19 test-and-trace app for England has been blocked by both Apple and Google because it added the ability for users to store and share location data.

The arm of the National Health Service that developed the app signed an agreement with both tech giants that it would not gather location data through the software in order to protect people's privacy. The latest update, however, allows folks to share a log of places where they have checked-in as a way of warning other users.

Users of the app have been able to scan a QR code when entering a public location or venue such as a shop or restaurant – many of which are required to display a sign with such a code – but the data remained on the phone.

When local authorities identified a location as being a hotspot for COVID-19, it would be added to a central database, the mobile app would check to see if user has been near locations in the database, and if so, relay this to the user. The new update, however, would allow users to upload their location data if, for example, a user tested positive and wanted to alert others of where they had been. The update was timed to coincide with a relaxation of lockdown rules in the United Kingdom.

Apple and Google have both decided that this additional data sharing violates the agreement the NHS signed with them, however, and have blocked the new code from being rolled out to handsets. People are still able to download and use the old version.

The UK government’s Department of Health has not explained how it managed to develop an entire update without realizing it would be blocked. An FAQ [PDF] written by Google and Apple last year stated clearly its COVID-19 notifications system for apps “does not share location data from the user’s device with the Public Health Authority, Apple, or Google.”

So trying to find a way around that policy decision was unlikely to be welcomed. In an update last week, the government announced the “venue history sharing” plan and described it as “privacy-protecting.” We were told:

Presumably the Department of Health thought that allowing the sharing to be opt-in and seeking (or pushing) for user action to share the data rather than automating it would be a way around the restriction.

The blunder, reported by the BBC here, reminds us of the UK government’s earlier attempts to create an app that would allow data to be stored and shared by fudging a rarely used Bluetooth connectivity feature of the phones’ operating systems: an approach that ultimately failed, and the NHS was forced to use special notification APIs set by the tech giants for COVID-19 apps.

It’s tempting to view the blocking as another example of how tech companies are more powerful than governments thanks to their control of mobile operating systems on devices that billions of people carry around with them at all times. But in this case, the UK government did sign an agreement and it’s not hard to see how the update would break it.

In the meantime, Scotland, for one, has come up with an alternative solution to gathering the same sort of data: it has created an entirely separate app called Check In Scotland that does the same thing but doesn’t directly feed into its contact-tracing app called Protect Scotland. ®

  • BlazorWebView arrives on desktop applications. Too convoluted?

    Microsoft has shipped preview 3 of its forthcoming .NET 6 framework with a bunch of updates including the addition of Windows desktop to its Multi-platform App UI (MAUI).

    As the first long-term support version of the supposedly unified framework, .NET 6.0 is expected to be completed in November. Like .NET 5.0, it is no longer designated .NET Core, though it remains distinct from the Windows-only .NET Framework, which is still supported but will not be further developed.

    .NET 6.0 has added Android, iOS, Mac and Windows ARM64 to the list of supported platforms, with mobile and Mac GUI support coming from the integration of Xamarin Forms. Although .NET 5.0 was released in November 2020, its short supported life means that .NET 6.0 may prove the more important release.

    Continue reading
  • Remaining .uk registry board members ignore demands of campaign that has already removed CEO

    Nominet has chosen civil war over compromise, formally rejecting members' calls to install former BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons as chair of the .uk registry operator.

    “After much careful consideration, the board has decided not to invite Sir Michael to be acting chair,” said Nominet's acting chairman Rob Binns in a letter to Nominet’s members on Monday. Instead, he said, the remaining board members would push ahead with their own recruitment process for a new chair, CEO, and executive director.

    The decision was met with fury from Nominet members who just last month voted to oust Nominet’s CEO and chairman and remove three other board members because they were fed up with the organisation ignoring their views and pushing the not-for-profit registry into commercial markets.

    Continue reading
  • NICE DCV also gets support for Apple's M1 silicon

    If you’re looking for another reason to fear webcam complications during a video chat, Amazon Web Services has two things for you.

    One comes in a set of handy updates to NICE DCV, the remote desktop and application streaming tool it offers for free to its cloudy customers.

    AWS suggests NICE as the best way to use EC2 instances with their GUIs, or to access applications running in its cloud. The tool requires installation on the server, then a local client to connect and stream apps or the desktop.

    Continue reading
  • Requires Alipay to open to competition but stops short of ordering company break up

    China has again cracked down on Alibaba, this time by ordering its fintech arm Ant Group to become a financial holding company that is subject to tighter regulations.

    Chinese regulators met with Ant Group on April 12 to lay out required business changes inspired by Beijing’s concern that technology firms acting as finance companies threaten financial stability and can create monopolies.

    As a financial holding company, Ant Group would face bank-like regulations. Other Beijing-directed changes include a requirement to open its near-ubiquitous Alipay payment app to competitors, increase consumer lending operation oversight, enhance data protection and reduce the size of its money market fund Yu'eBao. The measures do not require Ant to break apart or spin out any of its businesses.

    Continue reading
  • Won’t say when flight tests will resume, because uploads and testing are hard when your machine is 15 light minutes away

    NASA will upload a "minor modification" of flight control software to the Ingenuity helicopter ahead of its first attempt at powered flight on Mars, and says the process of doing so means it can’t say when attempts to send craft into Red skies will take place.

    The ‘copter was scheduled to attempt flight on April 11th, but NASA delayed lift-off due to a rotor spin test ending early “due to a 'watchdog' timer expiration".

    Now the space agency says that problem can only be overcome by new software.

    Continue reading
  • Jakarta bit barn offers subset of services - CLI, GPU, some storage services, advanced security services and serverless aren't on offer

    Chinese web giant Tencent has opened its first cloud data center in Indonesia.

    The new facility appears to be a standalone affair, rather than one of a pair or triad that would offer local redundancy. Tencent says it offers “more disaster recovery options in the whole APAC region” as the company also operates its cloud in Singapore, Bangkok, Mumbai, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul and four Chinese cities.

    The company says it chose Indonesia so that local customers could put data and compute closer to customers. The new facility therefore boasts backbone access to “all major Indonesian and global internet services providers” and “Tencent Cloud’s own high-quality border gateway protocol to cover the entire country.”

    Continue reading
  • Also, President Biden hosts meeting to mull over silicon shortage

    Intel has offered to fabricate chips for cars within the next six to nine months to help automakers brought to their knees by the ongoing global semiconductor shortage.

    The move comes as President Biden hosted a virtual meeting with business leaders from the hardware and auto industry on Monday, including Intel’s CEO Pat Gelsinger.

    In a separate interview with Reuters, Gelsinger said Intel was in talks with suppliers to produce microelectronics for vehicles sooner rather than later.

    Continue reading
  • And we're so sorry for not warning staff or anyone else about his board reelection, adds foundation

    The Free Software Foundation (FSF) on Monday apologized for mishandling the announcement last month that founder Richard Stallman, or RMS, had been reelected to its board of directors – and published a statement from RMS both justifying his behavior and apologizing for it.

    "FSF staff should have been informed and consulted first," the FSF said. "The announcement by RMS at LibrePlanet was a complete surprise to staff, all those who worked so hard to organize a great event, to LibrePlanet speakers and to the exhibitors. We had hoped for a more inclusive and thoughtful process and we apologize that this did not occur."

    The foundation's director, deputy director, and chief technology officer walked away away from the organization as a result of Stallman's surprise return, we understand from conversations with FSF staff.

    Continue reading
  • Effort to get accurate info gets more serious under new chairwoman

    The FCC is encouraging netizens to use its internet speed mobile app in an effort to finally get accurate broadband data across the United States.

    In an announcement on Monday, the telecoms regulator noted that “the app provides a way for consumers to test the performance of their mobile and in-home broadband networks” and “provides the test results to the FCC.”

    It stops far short of saying that the data will be used to make policy decisions, however, saying only that the figures gathered “will help to inform the FCC’s efforts to collect more accurate and granular broadband deployment data.”

    Continue reading
  • Highest Q1 figures since 2012

    It’s still boom time for makers of personal computers. The buying frenzy that started in the pandemic has spilled into the first quarter of 2021 with global shipments into the channel swelling by more than half to a staggering 82 million boxes.

    Each of the top five biggest-selling PC brands reported double digit jumps compared to Q1 2020, and even the Others section – comprised of the industry's also-rans – reported big gains.

    According to data compiled by Canalys, the total number of PC units shipped globally came in at 82.675 million, up 54.6 per cent year-on-year, or some 29.2 million more machines than were shipped in the opening three months of 2020.

    Continue reading
  • Also another data processing unit, system-on-a-chip for self-driving cars

    GTC Nvidia says it has designed an Arm-based general-purpose processor named Grace for training massive neural networks and powering supercomputers, and plans to ship it in 2023.

    The news shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Nvidia has, for instance, its family of Arm-based system-on-chips dubbed the Tegra family, which are aimed at embedded electronics and the Internet of Things. It also hinted it wanted to build its own more powerful processors when it put in a $40bn bid to snap up British chip designer Arm last year.

    Continue reading