Debacle over Corona app: update there, lack of transparency

© German Bundestag / Achim Melde

After technical problems on various smartphones, the widely used German Corona warning app has received an update. The latest version is intended to eliminate technical difficulties on Apple’s iPhone, as the software group SAP and Deutsche Telekom announced. The app is intended to help prevent the virus from spreading further. Since its launch in mid-June, it has been downloaded by more than 16 million users.

On the Apple iOS operating system, the app had constantly exchanged anonymous codes with other users as promised – however, the warning about dangerous encounters was not given in the background, but only when the app was actively open. Similar problems arose with certain Android smartphones. The cause was an energy-saving mode, which could have restricted the update or even deactivated it for some devices.

On Sunday evening Chancellor-in-Office Helge Braun, Health Minister Jens Spahn (both CDU), Telecom CEO Timotheus Höttges and SAP CEO Christian Klein said: “As with any new development, there are technical challenges. Not all mobile phones ran the app without restrictions. “The app automatically exchanged anonymous keys at all times. The exchange of keys from users who tested positive did not always work automatically in the background for some users, but only when they had opened the app. “It was clear to the Federal Government and the developers of the companies right from the start that the development of the Corona Warning app did not end with the start, but a project that we continue to work on every day to improve the app.”

The development team has now found a way to circumvent the restrictions on those mobile phones that had blocked automatic data synchronization in the background – both for Android devices and for iOS devices.

In order to promote the further development of the program interface on the iPhone, Apple has published the code of the “Notification API”. Meanwhile, Google opened an area for the interface of the Android smartphones to the server on the programming platform Github. This enables the developer community worldwide to participate in improving the code.

Because of the problems, there was also criticism of the federal government at the weekend. The German Foundation for Patient Protection had warned that trust would be lost. FDP parliamentary group leader Michael Theurer had asked: “After this breakdown series, the federal government must ensure transparency.” The Green MP Dieter Janecek had told the “Handelsblatt” that Spahn “should immediately explain how he intends to remedy the existing weaknesses”. The app cost more than 20 million euros. Up to 70 million are calculated for further operations. “Citizens must be able to expect that the promised protection is really open to everyone.”

The app is designed to help track and interrupt infection chains. If there was an encounter with someone who later tested positive for the corona virus, the cell phone should inform the owner. The app can also help people get their results faster after a test.

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