COVID-19 Smartphone Contact Tracing
Digital contact tracing is already underway in Singapore, South Korea and China
(Heiko Junge/NTB Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images)
Public officials, businesses and citizens are searching for a safe way to release ourselves from the grip of COVID-19 and return to our normal lives. Contact tracing using smartphone proximity technology is one proposed strategy. Proponents point out that many already own smartphones, which have been used to track users’ movements. Opponents worry about the risk to individual privacy and civil liberties. Contact tracing is nothing new. It has been used for decades as a core disease control measure, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, some communities such as New York State are planning to use traditional contact tracing. Public health officials trace the contacts of infected individuals, test the contacts for infection, treat the infected and, in turn, trace their contacts. However, contact tracing with smartphones is making its first appearance with the current COVID-19 pandemic. How does it work? If one of the smartphone users becomes infected, then smartphones of others that have been within 2 meters (6 feet), for 5 to 15 minutes, of the infected user’s phone would be notified and their owners could self-quarantine and seek testing. On April 10, Apple and Google announced joint application programming interfaces (APIs) using these principles that will be rolled out in iOS and Android in May, according to The Challenge of Proximity Apps for COVID-19 Contact Tracing in the Electronic Frontier Foundation on April 10. A number of similarly designed applications are available now or will launch soon. Apple and Google apps will be based on open-source protocols designed by leading academic institutions, such as MIT’s Safe Paths and Covid Watch, a collaboration between Stanford University and the University of Waterloo, according to Apple and Google Team Up to Fight COVID-19 With Contact Tracing in Quartz on April 10. The two mobile platform operators, whose systems run 99 percent of smartphones, have put strict limits on how health agencies can access the data. They support the decentralized approach, which they say would prevent governments from storing information collected from a user’s phone in one centralized location and using it for mass surveillance. Singapore’s TraceTogether app, for example, stores data in a centralized server, which some say make it more vulnerable to hacking and misuse, said Quartz. The European Union Commission issued guidelines for contact tracing on April 17 backing a decentralized approach in line with the European Union’s data privacy law. Several nations, including Austria, Italy, Spain, Germany and France, have agreed to develop apps in line with the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing, a coalition which is building a “backbone” for contact tracing apps in the EU. The apps will be able to talk with each other and with the United Kingdom’s NHSX app. Portugal Prime Minister Antonio Costa admitted that the DGS, Portugal’s health directorate, may have the possibility of anonymously alerting smartphones that have been a particular distance from the smartphone of a COVID-infected patients for a particular length of time, according to Publico on April 23. Costa began the interview by rejecting any type of georeferenced tracking in the fight against the novel coronavirus. “I don’t think that this is justified under any circumstances,” said Costa. “There is, in fact, no recommendation from any European institution in this regard. . . . What does exist is a set of applications that are being developed, that anyone can download, and that establishes in community, shares (of information) anonymously. No tracking, no geolocation of people, no identification of people.” France and Germany have started building apps that rely on central servers, which conflicts with Google and Apple, who have rebuffed requests of both countries for support of their apps. Apple has refused to allow Bluetooth wireless technology to run in the background on its iPhones while monitoring other devices. Such monitoring would open the way to greater surveillance by the state, according to privacy experts. Yet, for the French and German apps to work, as it now stands, a phone would need to be unlocked and have Bluetooth running in the foreground, which is a drain on the battery and an inconvenience to the user. A senior French official said that it was time for Europe to stop caving in to pressure from the United States, according to Reuters on April 24. “The European states are being completely held hostage by Google and Apple, said the official, who is involved with coordination efforts of the French contact-tracing app called StopCovid. Germany’s app is being developed by the research group, Fraunhofer HHI for the Robert Koch Institute, a federal agency coordinating the national health policy response to COVID-19. “The federal government has great trust in the system that is being tested by Fraunhofer,” said government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer. “With a decentralized system, you have to trust Apple and Google.” Proponents of Bluetooth apps say that they will do a better job of preserving privacy and keeping identities anonymous compared with apps that use GPS and location tracking. Critics of digital contact tracing remain dubious. A recent Pew Research survey found that nearly 60 percent of Americans do not think that smartphone tracking will help curb the virus. Despite the lack of confidence, many more people around the world will be able to contact trace digitally soon.