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EXPLAINER-How smartphone apps can help ‘contact trace’ the new coronavirus

by Rahul Chauhan
2 minutes read

A global race is underway to develop smartphone apps and other types of mobile phone surveillance systems to monitor and contain the spread of the new corona virus.

The process known as “contact tracing,” which is used to control the spread of infectious diseases, was strengthened last week when the top two smartphone software makers, Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Apple Inc., said to be collaborating on apps that can identify and warn people who have encountered an infectious patient. HOW CAN MOBILE PHONES COMBAT THE NEW CORONAVIRUS?

Smartphones and some less advanced mobile phones track their location via cellular signals, WiFi signals and the satellite-based global positioning system known as GPS. Smartphones also use so-called Bluetooth technology to connect to nearby devices. The location data can be used to check whether people, individually or collectively, are following orders to stay indoors. It can also be used for contact tracking: determining whether people have been in contact with others who have the virus so that they can be tested or quarantined.

Smartphones can also be used to conduct surveys of people about their health through messages, record their health history through various forms of data entry, and even produce a health score based on a combination of location data and health data. HOW CAN PHONES HELP WITH CONTACT TRACING?

Bluetooth allows smartphones to register other phones that have been nearby. If someone gets infected, there is a ready-made list of previous encounters. Phones on the list would receive push notifications urging them to get tested or isolate themselves. In principle, this system is more efficient than traditional contact tracking methods, where large staffers have to interview patients about their journeys and then call or knock on the door of contacts.

The Bluetooth solution is far from perfect. Phones can log each other even if they are 15 feet apart or on separate sides of a wall, even though an infected person’s cough would probably not be a problem in those cases. But developers have been working on ways to better define “contacts” based on the length and strength of so-called handshakes between devices. Bluetooth also remains more accurate than GPS or cell tower location data, which can erroneously associate anyone in a busy city block as contacts.

ARE ONE OF THESE METHODS CURRENTLY IN USE? Singapore pioneered contact tracking via Bluetooth with an app called “Track Together”. Israel, which made headlines by using its powerful government surveillance system to track cases, has also rolled out an app called The Shield. India also has an app.

South Korea uses mobile phone location data to track contacts, while Taiwan uses quarantine enforcement and is also developing an app. China uses a range of app-based tracking systems. Meanwhile, dozens of efforts are being made worldwide to develop contact tracking apps, many of which are led by government research institutes and health authorities. For example, in Europe, a Germany-led effort is aimed at uniting other European countries behind a technology platform that could support contact tracing apps in the 27-member EU. But several other European countries follow their own apps. An effort is also underway in the UK.

The U.S. government has not yet promoted an app, but at least two university research groups and one ad hoc software development are seeking approval from national and local agencies. HOW DO APPLE AND GOOGLE FIT IN?

The two companies said they were concerned about competitive approaches and agreed to develop tools, to be released in May, to allow apps to “handshake” with each other. They also cover battery drain and other issues that have limited the usefulness of some early apps. Apple and Google also plan to go a step further later this year by integrating the logging functionality into their phone software almost worldwide.

People who contract the virus still need to download an app to start contact notifications, but even those without apps can still receive notifications. ARE THERE PRIVACY AND SECURITY CARE?

Yes. The most sensitive issue is who can see the list of devices that a phone has crossed. Almost everyone agrees on log removal after about a month. Google’s and Apple’s tools keep contact list names and secret from everyone involved, which has received critical acclaim from privacy experts. Only governments, which need to verify that people who say they have tested positive for coronavirus actually did, would know the identity of disease carriers and even they would not have access to the contact lists.

But some governments and technologists prefer to collect a central database of all “handshakes” between phones, as this is an easier system to design and manage. Privacy advocates fear that such a database would be a goldmine for hackers and prone to government abuse. Some researchers have suggested that apps also track GPS information to better map the distribution of the coronavirus. But GPS data could undermine people’s privacy and leave places frequented by those who have been positively banned, activists said.

WILL PEOPLE NEED TO ENABLE CONTACT TRACING? No country needs an app, but workplaces or other facilities can make use mandatory. Apple and Google said that apps that want to use their tools should be voluntary.

But the apps will not achieve their purpose if they are not used much. Some epidemiologists have said that at least 60% of a country must activate digital contact tracking to make an impact.

(This story has not been edited by staff and is automatically generated from a syndicated feed.)


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