Apple denied COVID app to secure contact tracing monopoly, lawsuit claims

Apple has been hit with a lawsuit claiming that it rejected a coronavirus contact tracing app to maintain a monopoly in COVID-19 exposure notification.

The lawsuit, lodged in the U.S. District Court for the New Hampshire District on Tuesday, centers on a smartphone application called “Coronavirus Reporter” that was denied entry to the App Store in March 2020.

Coronavirus Reporter, the lawsuit claims, was developed by a team of healthcare and computer science experts in February 2020 to “capture and obtain critical biostatistical and epidemiological data as it happened.”

The team behind the app completed its development on March 3, the complaint continues. That’s about the time that Apple barred coronavirus-related apps that weren’t from recognized medical, government, or other institutions from the App Store.

The tech giant in an announcement posted to its developer website in mid-March last year noted its commitment to making the App Store a “safe and trusted place,” saying it was evaluating coronavirus-related apps “critically to ensure data sources are reputable and that developers presenting these apps are from recognized entities such as government organizations, health-focused NGOs, companies deeply credentialed in health issues, and medical or educational institutions.” It also recognized the time-sensitive nature of publishing said apps and made accommodations to expedite the review process.

After Apple rejected Coronavirus Reporter, the app’s developers appealed. The title was ultimately rejected some 20 days later because it was not backed by a recognized healthcare company and its “user-generated data has not been vetted for accuracy by a reputable source.”

The complaint says that Apple allowed another app that functioned similarly onto the App Store about a month later. It also takes issue with the Apple and Google Exposure Notification framework, which it says is “largely a failure.”

Beyond ensuring accurate data from legitimate sources, Apple’s cross-platform Exposure Notification protocol, developed in partnership with Google, is built on a privacy-first framework. The system denies storage of personal data on central servers and relies on anonymized Bluetooth beacons on user devices until participants elect to share the information with an outside party. If and when a user is diagnosed with COVID-19, they can opt to upload a 14-day list of recent contacts (again, anonymized) to a distribution server, which matches beacon IDs and sends out notifications alerting those individuals that they came in close contact with a carrier of the virus. Doctors can also peruse the data, if such access is granted.

Third-party apps that integrate with the Exposure Notification API must adhere to Apple’s rules.

The lawsuit alleges that Apple blocked Coronavirus Reporter in an effort to maintain a monopoly on contact tracing applications. Additionally, it claims that Apple’s ability to “arbitrarily determine which applications will or will not be published has substantial anti-competitive effects.”

The lawsuit says that these actions constitute violations of the anti-monopoly Sherman Act. It seeks an enjoinment on the alleged anti-competitive behavior; damages in excess of $75,000; and a permanent injunction restraining Apple’s ability from “restricting reasonable applications.”

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