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Techtools : Apple and Google want to turn your phone into a Covid-tracking machine

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Just when you were wondering why the world’s biggest tech companies weren’t doing more to fight the coronavirus pandemic, Apple and Google made a big announcement: They are joining forces to build an opt-in contact-tracing tool using Bluetooth technology that could help public health officials track the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The new tool brings with it not only hope for a quicker end to the pandemic, but also a host of privacy and security concerns.

The contact-tracing tool Apple and Google want to create would have your smartphone log when you’ve come into close contact with other people. If one of those people later reports Covid-19 symptoms to a public health authority, your phone would send you an alert. It works a bit like exchanging contact information with everyone you meet, except everything is designed to be anonymous and automatic.

Instead of contact info, your smartphone will periodically exchange anonymized tracing keys with nearby devices. Both devices maintain a list of the keys they’ve collected on a cloud server, and when one person reports an infection, they have the option of sending an alert to people they’ve recently been in contact with. That alert will share information for what those people should do next.

Those are the broad strokes of what’s sure to be a very complex public-health-focused surveillance system. It represents an unprecedented partnership between two competing tech giants, one that could forever change the way our devices talk to each other.

(Apple and Google say that the new contact-tracing tool will work between iPhones and Android phones.) The Bluetooth-based approach also draws on beacon technology that’s already in use in retail environments — and is already a concern for privacy advocates. Understanding the privacy and security implications of this new coronavirus contact-tracing technology will take time, but based on what we know now, the tool will start rolling out soon.

How it’s built

An important thing to understand about this system is that Apple and Google aren’t doing this by themselves. The two companies are building a set of tools, known as an application programming interface (API), that lets iOS and Android apps communicate with each other.

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In the first phase of the tool’s release, which will start around mid-May, Google and Apple will release the APIs so that public health authorities can then build apps that will be publicly available in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. People can choose to download those apps — and again, these apps will let iPhones and Android phones talk to each other.

The tool’s second phase will roll out over the next several months. Apple and Google plan to build contact-tracing functionality into the operating systems of the phones themselves, which might sound a little tricky for folks who worry about being tracked without their consent. As the New York Times points out, by building the tool directly into the operating system, Apple and Google effectively ensure that the contact-tracing system can run 24 hours a day, rather than only when a particular app is open.

“This is a more robust solution than an API and would allow more individuals to participate, if they choose to opt in, as well as enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities,” the companies said in a press release. “Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders.”

To protect users’ privacy, Apple and Google say they will build this system while keeping people’s identities anonymous throughout the process. That’s because the companies say they won’t build a database of who has Covid-19 and whom they’ve been in contact with. Instead, they’ll store that information in temporary, anonymous cryptographic keys that refresh every 15 minutes. Meanwhile, all participation in contact tracing will be opt-in, and both companies say they plan to release regular reports on the program’s progress.

Apple and Google released technical specifications and other details about the project in press releases on Friday morning. Though it will take some time to sift through these details, the tool’s announcement has definitely caught the attention of privacy experts, who broadly seem hopeful about the anonymized, decentralized nature of what Apple and Google are building.

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How it works, in theory

Which brings us back to how the tool might actually work. In their announcement, Apple and Google mapped out a hypothetical scenario that does a good job of explaining the broad strokes of the contact-tracing process. It involves two people named Alice and Bob.

Alice and Bob meet each other for the first time while sitting on a bench for a brief conversation. Because they’ve installed the new Apple and Google technology, their phones exchange anonymized tracing keys (think of these as contact info files with a unique identifier instead of a person’s contact info). These keys indicate that Alice and Bob have been in contact, and because they’ve opted in to the Apple and Google contact tracing system, this exchanging of keys happens automatically.

A few days later, Bob finds out he’s positively diagnosed with Covid-19, and he updates an app with that information. With Bob’s consent, the app then sends an alert to everyone with whom Bob exchanged keys in the last 14 days. Alice is one of these folks, so she gets a notification that she’s been in contact with someone who has Covid-19. The notification also includes information about what Alice should do next, like go get tested herself.

As captivating as these drawings are, they represent a complex marriage of technology and design. That doesn’t mean that the contact-tracing system can’t work as advertised, but there are, so far, an unknown number of caveats that will come with its potential success.

How privacy matters

In announcing this new initiative, both Apple and Google have stressed that users have to consent to participate in contact tracing, that the apps won’t collect personally identifiable information, and that people who test positive aren’t identified to anyone else. Still, organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have raised privacy concerns about such contact-tracing systems — which are already being widely used in other countries such as South Korea, China, and Singapore.

“To their credit, Apple and Google have announced an approach that appears to mitigate the worst privacy and centralization risks, but there is still room for improvement,” Jennifer Granick, ACLU surveillance and cybersecurity counsel, wrote in a public statement on Friday. “We will remain vigilant moving forward to make sure any contract tracing app remains voluntary and decentralized, and used only for public health purposes and only for the duration of this pandemic.”

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And that’s another looming question: Just how long will Apple and Google leave these contact-tracing tools embedded in their mobile operating systems? After all, if this technology can be used to track who you’ve been in contact with, it seems possible that it could also be coopted for commercial purposes or even for government surveillance. As Bennett Cyphers, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said to Recode, “We don’t want anything to be built into the OS that’s going to be turned on forever.”

There are also questions about the accuracy of Bluetooth. Some have worried that Bluetooth could yield false positive matches, though it’s not yet clear exactly how Apple and Google will implement the proximity features of Bluetooth LE technology. Others have raised concerns about the location accuracy of contact-tracing mobile apps in general. Furthermore, for the tool to be most effective, a plurality of people must opt in to using it. The big test of this project’s success will be how widespread the adoption of this contact-tracing tool becomes, and if that will be enough to impact the course of this pandemic’s trajectory significantly.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about how the Apple-Google tool will work in practice. We’ll learn more in the weeks to come, after the companies roll out the APIs and public health authorities start releasing contact-tracing apps. But regardless of potential drawbacks, this tool represents one of the most ambitious private-public partnerships in recent history. It’s the beginning of a new future where tech companies are injecting their resources into a public health crisis, not only leveraging their power in a tremendous way but also raising questions about how this power will change society for years to come.

Via_Vox

Business

How to make the new ‘Living with Covid’ plan work for your small business

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The UK government has confirmed that England will end all Covid self-isolation laws on Thursday, as part of its ‘Living with Covid’ plan. What does this mean for SMEs?

Earlier this month, Boris Johnson announced that all Covid-19 rules in England will be scrapped by the end of February.

The new plan has major implications for small businesses, including scrapping the requirement for individuals to self-isolate if they test positive for Covid-19.

Free mass testing is also scheduled to end on April 1.

Below, we look at what exactly the changes are, what they mean for small business owners, and how you can support and prepare your workforce for ‘Living with Covid’.

What is England’s ‘Living with Covid’ plan?

Boris Johnson’s ‘Living with Covid’ plan will take place over three stages.

The first stage has already taken place. New rules introduced on February 21 mean that staff and students in most education and childcare settings no longer have to test twice weekly.

But the change that will have the biggest impact on small businesses is the scrapping of all self-isolation rules from 24 February.

That means people with Covid will no longer be legally required to self-isolate for the previously-required period of five days.

Other new rules include:

  • Guidance will remain that those who test positive stay at home for five days
  • Contact tracing will end
  • Workers will no longer need to tell their employer if they need to self-isolate
  • Self-isolation support payments for those on low incomes will be scrapped

From 1 April:

  • Covid-19 tests will no longer be free except for the most vulnerable
  • Covid passports will be scrapped (except for international travel)
  • Employers will no longer have to explicitly consider Covid in their health and safety risk assessments

The plan Boris Johnson has announced to end all legal restrictions is for England only. Restrictions remain in place in other parts of the UK.What do small business leaders think of the announcement?

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In a press release, Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) National Chair Mike Cherry said: “Small firms right across England will be hoping that this week definitively marks the end of chopping and changing restrictions that have blighted them over the past two years.

“The priority now must be containing the virus and protecting community wellbeing whilst avoiding the need to shut down the economy entirely.”

What if my employees test positive for Covid-19?

The scrapping of Covid-19 self-isolation laws puts the responsibility of managing Covid-positive employees onto the business owner.

This means employers are in a slightly trickier situation when it comes to sick policies.

The government has said that ‘guidance’ will remain in place for those who test positive to stay at home and avoid contact with others for at least five full days.

But the lack of legal rules is likely to result in individuals attending the workplace whilst either positive for Covid-19 or showing symptoms.

With the majority of the UK adult population now fully-vaccinated, symptoms will be milder. It would be unusual for someone to take a week off work because of a cold, and it’s likely only those with serious and/or debilitating Covid-19 symptoms will take time off work.

How can I support members of staff who might be worried about testing positive?

Regardless of the law, the government’s new plan may raise difficult issues for employers, who need to walk a thin line between living with Covid-19 and ensuring the safety of staff.

Many employers have chosen the latter option in the past.

Indeed, data from employee parking software ParkOffice has shown that employers allowed their staff to abandon the office enmasse during the spread of the Omicron variant pre-Christmas, despite there being no official Government advice to restrict movement.

Over the four week period between late November and the traditional break for Christmas, ParkOffice found there was a massive 92.5% decline in office goers across the UK.

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As more people return to the office, your staff might want to avoid individuals who attend the workplace whilst positive for Covid-19 because they feel it is unsafe.

Legally, employers have a duty to support these employees and manage risks to those affected by their business. Here are a few examples for what that might look like:

Health and safety assessment

While no longer legally required, the way to do this is to carry out a health and safety risk assessment – including the risk of COVID-19 – and to take reasonable steps to mitigate any risks to other employees who might be worried about becoming infected with Covid-19.

The Government’s working safety guidance sets out a range of mitigations employers should consider including identifying poorly ventilated areas and taking steps to improve air flow in these areas.

Run an employee engagement survey and/or forum

Employee feedback surveys are meant to improve productivity by understanding the way your employees think about your company’s current policies and ways of working.

Check the attitude of your workplace towards the new ‘Living with Covid’ plan with an anonymous feedback survey before you decide on any long-term policies.

It might be that your staff are happy to work with people who have tested positive for Covid – or, you might learn that they are unhappy with the new rules and will require more reassurance and support measures.

This is not only a helpful exercise for business leaders, as you can hear concerns and issues directly from your employees. It’s also a good communication channel for staff members to air any grievances and feel they are being listened to.

Similar to this approach is an employee engagement forum. This is essentially a team discussion amongst a handful of volunteers from your workforce who can then share their ideas on a problem and give feedback on how other employees might be feeling.

Implement your own self-isolation policy

ALSO READ:  Consul General of Liberaland in Pakistan Faisal Butt hails Imran Khan’s strategy that reduced Covid-19 Cases in Pakistan .

If you feel that a large enough majority of your staff are concerned about the government’s new plan, there are more forceful steps you can take.

The end of the legal obligation to self-isolate does not prevent employers from having their own restrictions on workplace attendance for those who test positive for Covid-19 – if you choose to do so.

Typically, these rules would be contained in the employer’s policies and may, for example, stipulate that individuals who either test positive for Covid-19, and/or are displaying symptoms of the virus, work from home until a negative test is taken.

This more assertive action is not without potential risks, and you should make sure to properly communicate your reasoning to staff members to avoid alienating them.

You should also consider:

  • Purchasing home-testing kits for employees who are displaying symptoms of Covid-19 and wish to take a test.As free testing has now been scrapped, putting the onus of purchasing a test on your employees could cause friction.
  • Choosing to keep in place rules on face-coverings, hand washing and other safety measures should you wish. These might further reassure employees that the workplace is safe to continue working in.

Conclusion

The government’s ‘Living with Covid’ plan means it is now lawful for employees to attend the workplace with Covid-19 or with symptoms.

Still, employers should carry out employee surveys to check the temperature of their staff and keep an eye on the mood of the workplace on Covid-19 issues.

There is still debate about whether or not these restrictions should be lifted and a good employer should ensure they are addressing the concerns of staff members who might not feel safe coming into the office – particularly after nearly two years of living with Covid-19 safety measures.

Open communication through employee surveys and even specialist engagement committees will help your staff to function properly and ensure they feel properly supported.

Via Startups

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Covid-19

Consul General of Liberaland in Pakistan Faisal Butt hails Imran Khan’s strategy that reduced Covid-19 Cases in Pakistan .

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Lahore: Consul General of Liberland in Pakistan Faisal Butt has appreciated the strategy of the Pakistani government in view of the reduction of corona cases in Pakistan. In his statement, he said that Pakistan has taken better steps to control the spread of corona in comparison to the neighbouring countries .

As a result of these measures , Pakistan is rated amongst the lowest covid 19 cases reported countries . Not only the cases but also the death toll is much less than other countries.

He said that there was no doubt that Pakistan was making progress even in conditions like corona. All the credit goes to the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Today, other Asian countries, including Europe, also appreciating Imran Khan’s strategy. He further said that the day is not far when the people of Pakistan will be vaccinated and declared a Corona free country.

Referring to the relations between Pakistan and Liberland, he said that Corona has enveloped the whole world, which has hampered relations, imports and exports with many countries. As soon as the situation improves, not only diplomatic but also trade relations between Pakistan and Liberals will be restored.

The Consul General said we are planing to sign the agreements between the Liberland Chamber of Commerce and the Lahore Chamber of Commerce. A plan of action will be announced soon.

ALSO READ:  Consul General of Liberaland in Pakistan Faisal Butt hails Imran Khan’s strategy that reduced Covid-19 Cases in Pakistan .
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What will the post-COVID world look like?

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Although virologists have been warning of the risks of a global pandemic since the SARS outbreak in 2003, the world was still mostly unprepared when confronted with the COVID-19 crisis. However, it was also unlucky.

It was unfortunate that the pandemic came in the run-up to a US presidential election that has created an environment as politically polarized as any the country has experienced. As a result, much of the US media coverage of, and debate about, the virus and the global policies needed to deal with its effects have been more about the presidential race rather than the pandemic.

This has obviously had a clear effect on international politics because of the importance of the role of the US and its global leadership.

It was also bad luck that the health crisis came at a time of high tensions between the US and the second largest global power, China, where the virus originated. This further complicated any potential global unified response.

As a result of the global uncertainty, it is difficult to forecast how critical aspects of the crisis, which seems likely to continue for at least another 12 months, will play out in the Middle East, and also what a post-COVID world might look like.

One certainty is that most countries will be forced to shift their focus and resources to domestic matters rather than regional issues.

The virus and the resultant shutdowns imposed to “flatten the curve” of infections have had, and will continue to have, devastating consequences on economies and national budgets. It seems that despite the soft reopening of parts of economies around the world, the current health concerns will prevent a full restoration of business activities for some time, especially if the number of infections and deaths start to rise again after governments relax precautionary measures.

ALSO READ:  Pakistan's small businesses hit hard by COVID-19

In our increasingly interconnected world, it is difficult to determine whether any country will come out on top economically, and consequently geopolitically, especially given mounting levels of debt.

Countries able to borrow in their own currency seem to be at an advantage; this applies mainly to the US and the EU (if the European countries can unify their policies), and indirectly also explains the current debate in the Gulf about the unpegging of currencies.

Another certainty is that with less money available, wars and proxy wars will become prohibitively expensive and all parties will be forced to scale down their ambitions. As a result, aggression will be reduced and consensus and agreement might be more readily reached. Countries and their allies or proxies who have refused to sit at the negotiation table might now change their minds and mellow, or perhaps even be forced to completely withdraw from conflict zones.

Take Iran, for instance, which has been targeted recently by a successful US policy of maximum pressure. The country is facing problems domestically and, with the added pressure of low oil prices, it will be less able to maintain its financial support to the Houthis in Yemen, the militias in Iraq, and Hezbollah.

Does that mean Tehran will cease its meddling? Nothing is certain but domestic turmoil might force it to do so.

As Iran’s problems have grown, the region has witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic the emergence of a more assertive Turkey. This has happened despite the fact the country is also suffering economically.

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It has been a long time in the making. Turkish involvement has spread to many regional issues beyond its normal national security zone. Its involvement in neighboring Syria is understandable, given that the conflict there directly threatens Turkey’s security. More interesting is the Turkish interest in Libya, where Ankara is pushing for a continued presence with no apparent direct threat or rationale to explain this. This is happening while it also increases political rhetoric that promises continued interference in the domestic affairs of Arab countries in the years to come.

A closer look at the issues reveals that Turkey is focusing its involvement on key points on Europe’s energy routes. This is not surprising, as Europe remains Ankara’s main and constant focus. So, Turkey is now directly competing with Russia — the biggest supplier of gas to Europe — in Syria, where Iran is also strongly entrenched as the country is a key Mediterranean access point for its gas and energy deliveries to Europe.

Turkey is challenging Russia for control of the tap that provides Europe with its energy stability, and this explains its involvement in Libya and other countries. The same logic explains Ankara’s negative reaction to the Israeli-Greek-Cypriot gas-pipeline project, EastMed. This motivates its strategy, as it hopes to leverage it to make more gains in the region.

Therefore, we can expect an increased Turkish focus on the Mediterranean and on supply-chain routes and access points for energy, as well as merchandise being shipped from the East to Europe.

On that point, the land routes of China’s Belt and Road Initiative include one that goes through Russia and another that passes through Turkey. This massive project is also something Turkey is well aware of, and Ankara is striving to ensure it has a presence on key points along the BRI’s Maritime Silk Road. Once again, it is being guided not by national security concerns but a desire to increase its regional clout.

It is difficult to forecast how critical aspects of the corona crisis will play out in the Middle East. 

Khaled Abou Zahr

While Russia and Turkey face off on the ground over an increasing number of issues, it is interesting to note the apparent lack of any direct involvement by the US or China, the two biggest global powers, and, surprisingly, the total absence of European nations, which should be the most concerned about what is happening.

ALSO READ:  Consul General of Liberaland in Pakistan Faisal Butt hails Imran Khan’s strategy that reduced Covid-19 Cases in Pakistan .

In weighing how global and regional powers will direct their foreign policies and manage existing conflict zones, their own domestic political, economic and social stability will play an important role.

Yet, apparent weaknesses might invite bold moves and dangerous power-grab attempts. This delicate balance will be the key driver for international policies in the coming years. One might say that uncertainty and volatility have spread from the stock-markets to the geopolitical arena.

  • Khaled Abou Zahr is the CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.

Courtesy : Arabnews.pk

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