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Japan gov't COVID-19 tracing app still incompatible with latest operating systems

A smartphone screen showing Japan's coronavirus contact tracing app COCOA for Android is seen in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Feb. 18, 2021. (Mainichi/Kazuhisa Soneda)

TOKYO -- The Japanese government's coronavirus contact-tracing smartphone app COCOA is still not compatible with the latest mobile operating system updates by Apple Inc. and Google LLC as of March 15, it has been learned.

    Although the app currently works on both Google's Android and Apple's iOS operating systems, future software updates may present a risk of unexpected situations such as it ceasing to function. The government had been aware of the issue, but effectively neglected it for several months.

    By autumn 2020, both U.S. firms made major operating system updates to improve their contact history recording abilities. To avoid a situation where apps compatible with older software stopped working, both companies indicated they would continue for the time being to provide support for older operating system versions.

    At the same time however, they issued a warning strongly recommending not to use the old software, and urged governments operating COCOA and similar apps to make them compatible with the latest operating systems as soon as possible.

    But in Japan, problems such as users not being able to receive notifications on Android devices, even after the app had been in contact with coronavirus-positive patients for around four months, occurred one after another.

    The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare and Tokyo-based IT firm Persol Process & Technology, which has an approximately 390-million-yen contract (some $3.57 million) with the ministry to maintain and operate COCOA, urged the firm subcontracted with the work to take measures against the defects. But it was judged that there was no urgency in making the app compatible with the latest systems, and the issue was effectively left unattended.

    One government official told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We knew about the information (issued by Google and Apple), but our top priority was to resolve problems at hand."

    In February 2021, the government finally started work on a detailed study of ways to make the app compatible with the latest systems. The government plans to enter a contract with another company after Persol's contract expires at the end of March. It has taken several months for countries outside of Japan to update their own apps, and it is expected it will take some time to complete COCOA's update, too.

    COCOA uses smartphones' Bluetooth wireless technology and records via users' devices instances when people are within 1 meter of each other for 15 minutes or longer. It began operations in June 2020 on Google and Apple's operating systems.

    (Japanese original by Tsuyoshi Goto, Business News Department)

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