By KELVIN CHAN AP Business Writer
LONDON (AP) — Britain scrapped plans to launch its own coronavirus contact tracing smartphone app because of technical problems and will now work on building one using technology supplied by Apple and Google, health authorities said Thursday.
The app had been undergoing trials on the Isle of Wight, off the southern coast of England, with plans to roll it out to the rest of the country later, but the program went quiet in recent weeks.
Officials overseeing the U.K. app’s development said they couldn’t overcome technical challenges found during field tests.
Even though it worked well on Google’s Android devices, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the government was abandoning the prototype app and instead putting its efforts into developing one using a special interface jointly developed by Apple and Google, which itself had problems.
“Apple software prevents iPhones from being used effectively for contact tracing unless you’re using Apple’s own technology,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said at the government’s daily briefing.
“Our app won’t work because Apple won’t change their system,” Hancock said. He wasn’t able to say when a new app would be ready.
Britain has the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe, at over 42,000, and the Conservative government has been sharply criticized for what many see as its slow, muddled response to fighting the pandemic.
Authorities in Britain and elsewhere have been trying to harness new technology to help manage fresh virus flareups as lockdowns ease. However, efforts to develop mobile apps to help with manual contact tracing, a pillar of infection control, have been dogged by technical problems and privacy concerns.
Various contact tracing apps being rolled out across Europe use low-energy Bluetooth signals to anonymously log anyone who comes within close contact to a user — usually two meters for 15 minutes or more.
Britain initially opted to develop its own “centralized” tracing app that would send data about contacts to government servers for analysis, alarming privacy experts. The app is part of a broader British “test, track and trace” program that includes 27,000 people hired to track down anyone who’s been in contact with an infected person, so they can be told to get tested or self-isolate.
The Android version of the British app was fairly accurate at identifying other devices, but the Apple iPhone version wasn’t, picking up only 4% of contacts. The problem is that Apple’s iOS normally won’t let apps use Bluetooth in the background, so it can’t constantly scan for other users.
U.K. authorities started developing a second app in parallel that uses the Google-Apple interface, Hancock said. It was highly accurate at detecting other users, but poor at judging how far away they were, a feature Hancock said was “mission critical to any contact tracing app.”
“We’ve now got problems with both versions but there’s parts of each that can come together to build something that’s stronger than either version.”
Other European nations such as Switzerland, Germany and Italy and some U.S. states have adopted the Google-Apple system, which uses experts say is better for privacy because it keeps data on phones.
Data rights expert Ravi Naik said Britain’s app posed privacy risks and welcomed the government’s U-turn.
“It’s a shame they didn’t do so sooner as the spread of COVID-19 could have been mitigated if they hadn’t been so committed to going it alone,” he said.
However, the Google-Apple system has its weaknesses, said Emily Taylor, CEO of Oxford Information Labs, a cyber intelligence company.
“It won’t achieve the epidemiological goals of understanding hot spots of infection or identifying a second wave,” she said.
Danica Kirka and Pan Pylas contributed to this report.
US to seek automated braking requirement for heavy trucks
In a reversal from Trump administration policies, U.S. auto safety regulators say they will move to require or set standards for automatic emergency braking systems on new heavy trucks.
The Department of Transportation, which includes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, announced the change Friday when it released its spring regulatory agenda.
It also will require what it said are rigorous testing standards for autonomous vehicles, and set up a national database to document automated-vehicle crashes.
The moves by the administration of President Joe Biden run counter to the agency’s stance under President Donald Trump. NHTSA had resisted regulation of automated-vehicle systems, saying it didn’t want to stand in the way of potential life-saving developments. Instead it relied on voluntary safety plans from manufacturers.
NHTSA had proposed a regulation on automatic emergency braking in 2015 before Trump took office, but it languished in the regulatory process. The agency says it has been studying use of the electronic systems, and it plans to publish a proposed rule in the Federal Register in April of next year. When a regulation is published, it opens the door to public comment.
“We are glad to see NHTSA finally take the next step in making large trucks safer by mandating AEB,” said Jason Levine, director of the Center for Auto Safety, which was among the groups that petitioned for the requirement in 2015. “Unfortunately, at this rate, it will still be years until the technology that could help stop the 5,000 truck crash deaths on our roads is required,” he said in an email.
A trade group representing independent big rig drivers says the technology isn’t ready for heavy vehicles and can unexpectedly activate without reason.
“Our members have also reported difficulties operating vehicles in inclement weather when the system is engaged, which has created safety concerns,” the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association said in a statement.
The association says that while the technology is still being perfected, legislators and regulators shouldn’t set time frames for requiring it on all trucks.
However, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group supported by auto insurers, found in a study last year that automatic emergency braking and forward collision warnings could prevent more than 40% of crashes in which semis rear-end other vehicles. A study by the group found that when rear crashes happened, the systems cut speeds by more than half, reducing damage and injuries.
Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, another group that sought the regulation from NHTSA in 2015, said the agency is moving too slowly by not publishing the regulation until next year.
“I don’t understand the delay,” she said. “I know that might sound impatient, but when people are dying on the roads, 5,000 people are dying on the roads each year, and we have proven solutions, we would like to see more immediate action,” she said.
In 2016, NHTSA brokered a deal with 20 automakers representing 99% of U.S. new passenger vehicle sales to voluntarily make automatic emergency braking standard on all models by Sept. 1, 2022. But that deal did not apply to big rigs.
The announcement of the requirements comes two days after four people were killed when a milk tanker going too fast collided with seven passenger vehicles on a Phoenix freeway. At least nine people were injured.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates crashes and makes recommendations to stop them from happening, said Thursday it would send a nine-person team to investigate the Phoenix crash. The agency said it would look at whether automatic emergency braking in the truck would have mitigated or prevented the crash.
Since at least 2015 the NTSB has recommended automatic emergency braking or collision alerts be standard on vehicles.
At present, there are no federal requirements that semis have forward collision warning or automatic emergency braking, even though the systems are becoming common on smaller passenger vehicles.
The systems use cameras and sometimes radar to see objects in front of a vehicle, and they either warn the driver or slow and even stop the vehicle if it’s about to hit something.
DETROIT (AP) — By TOM KRISHER AP Auto Writer
Google pledges to resolve ad privacy probe with UK watchdog
Google has promised to give U.K. regulators a role overseeing its plan to phase out existing ad-tracking technology from its Chrome browser as part of a competition investigation into the tech giant.
The U.K. competition watchdog has been investigating Google’s proposals to remove so-called third-party cookies over concerns they would undermine digital ad competition and entrench the company’s market power.
To address the concerns, Google on Friday offered a set of commitments including giving the Competition and Markets Authority an oversight role as the company designs and develops a replacement technology.
“The emergence of tech giants such as Google has presented competition authorities around the world with new challenges that require a new approach,” Andrea Coscelli, the watchdog’s chief executive, said.
The Competition and Markets Authority will work with tech companies to “shape their behaviour and protect competition to the benefit of consumers,” he said.
The promises also include “substantial limits” on how Google will use and combine individual user data for digital ad purposes and a pledge not to discriminate against rivals in favor of its own ad businesses with the new technology.
If Google’s commitments are accepted, they will be applied globally, the company said in a blog post.
Third-party cookies – snippets of code that log user info – are used to help businesses more effectively target advertising and fund free online content such as newspapers. However, they’ve also been a longstanding source of privacy concerns because they can be used to track users across the internet.
Google shook up the digital ad industry with its plan to do away with third-party cookies, which raised fears newer technology would leave even less room for online ad rivals.
Amazon now says remote work OK 2 days a week
Corporate and tech employees at Amazon won’t have to work in offices full time after coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
The Seattle Times reports the online retail giant said in a company blog post Thursday that those workers can work remotely two days a week. In addition, the employees can work remotely from a domestic location for four full weeks each year.
Amazon’s work policy update follows backlash from some employees to what they interpreted as the expectation they would have to return to the office full time once states reopen.
Some tech companies had launched recruiting campaigns that seemed targeted in part at Amazon workers’ dismay over an end to remote work.
Most Amazon employees will start heading back to offices as soon as local jurisdictions fully reopen — July 1 in Washington state — with the majority of workers in offices by autumn, the company said previously.
Amazon has about 75,000 employees in the greater Seattle area. The company’s new remote-work plan is similar to other large tech companies.
Google said last month that it expected roughly 60% of its workforce to come into the office a few days a week, and for 20% to work from home full time. Google also gave all employees the option to work remotely full time four weeks per year. Facebook and Microsoft have both said most workers can choose to stay remote.
Amazon’s new policy could add to the challenges faced by Seattle’s traditional business core. In pre-pandemic times, tens of thousands of Amazon workers commuted into the South Lake Union neighborhood north of downtown every day. Most haven’t returned.
More than 450 downtown retailers, restaurants and other street-level business locations have closed permanently in the 16 months since the pandemic sent office workers home, according to a Downtown Seattle Association survey.
Of the roughly 175,000 people who worked in downtown offices before the pandemic, 80% continue to work remotely, according to association data.
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