Apple & Google to Turn Your Phone Into a Covid-19 Tracker

Article By : Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio

The two are collaborating on a technique for tracing the movements of infected persons while still respecting the privacy of those not suspected of spreading the disease or in danger of getting it...

In an attempt to contain the coronavirus epidemic, many countries have begun to track the movements of their citizens. This rings clear alarms about privacy but, as Taiwan and several countries in Asia have demonstrated, tracking has also been an effective tool in helping to contain the virus.

Meanwhile, Apple and Google have announced an unprecedented collaboration to enable their iOS and Android operating systems to automatically track customers’ phones to contain the pandemic.

Taiwan Technology
Some of these tracking technologies are apps used to verify that those who have the virus or were likely exposed to it remain in confinement, but there are various other methodologies and technologies that are making their way around the world.

“My phone had run out of battery for about 15 minutes, and when I turned it on, I saw these warning messages.” That was a Taiwanese citizen, whose quote was shared in multiple media outlets. Police officers had checked up on him, to verify that he had not violated the mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Taiwan’s vast tracking apparatus is monitoring some 55,000 people. It is just one of the many countries using cell phone location data to monitor the location and movements of people in the midst of a global pandemic.

In 2003, Taiwan was hit by SARS and had to put about 150,000 people in quarantine. At the same time, the number of tourists virtually reached zero. This is why Taiwan has been on constant alert ever since, and why it was prepared to react so quickly to the Covid-19 epidemic. Other jurisdictions that have had effective responses to Covid-19, such as Singapore, are among those that were similarly affected by SARS and similarly prepared for subsequent epidemics.

Tracking systems typically perform a geolocation check via apps to track the movement of citizens. That makes it possible to quickly identify people who test positive for the virus. Furthermore, it makes it easier to identify people that those who have tested positive might have come into contact with, so those people can be quarantined in turn. Such systems, if applied with consideration for privacy protection, and with the more-or-less voluntary participation of citizens, have made it possible to slow down the spread of the virus.

Working with the main telecommunications companies, these system track individuals in quarantine by triangulating the position of their phones in relation to the cell phone repeaters in the vicinity.

Taiwan was the first to implement this technology, followed by countries such as China and Singapore, earning praise from almost all over the world. Taiwan started working on the system at the end of January, only a week after the country had registered the first imported case of the new coronavirus from Wuhan, the Chinese city where the outbreak was discovered. Taiwanese authorities have implemented what they call the M-Police system, which provides agents with cloud access to a database of individuals under quarantine orders.

Taiwan has demonstrated that a liberal democracy with a market economy can, in an emergency, use scientific and technological means to obtain results.

Apple & Google
Contact tracing, digital or not, is considered by experts as one of the most useful containment measures in case of an epidemic. Dozens of governments, including the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy, are studying this possibility. The principle is simple: via Bluetooth communication, our smartphones communicate with all other devices they encounter during the day and register their identifiers. If one day we test positive, we can extract the list of all the people we’ve met in the last few weeks from our phones so that they can be notified, tested, and if necessary quarantined.

Western countries tend to be far more protective of privacy rights. In the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union and other bodies have raised concerns about tracking users with phone data, arguing that any system should be limited in scope and avoid compromising users’ privacy.

Google and Apple are working on an idea for tracing they believe will work well, and yet will also protect users’ privacy. Their idea is basically this: citizens’ smartphones constantly send messages to nearby devices with a secret identification code that changes every 15 minutes. The code generated is not causal, but derived from a private key registered in the smartphone. This cryptographic chain protects privacy because it makes it possible to trace the daily code back to the individual’s temporary codes, but does not allow anyone else to do so without the owner of the phone’s consent.

Description of the Apple-Google algorithm

If a person is infected, the smartphone sends a code to a centralized cloud registry (this is similar to Taiwan’s approach). Other smartphones can periodically download this register to compare it with the temporary codes they have registered to find out if they have crossed an infected person. Obviously, it will be necessary to install an app, especially when transmitting data to health authorities and receive alerts. The system would warn all the others who have been close to it, through a register of Bluetooth signals emitted by phones. The tracking, moreover, could allow understanding with which people the subject has come into contact and if self-quarantine has been triggered.

Many analysts believe it to be solid. Some demonstrate how this system ensures confidentiality until a person is tested as positive. The potential of compromising privacy should be lower with this system.

Advocates also claim this approach can minimize problems in the instance of a false positive. Bluetooth is not the most reliable means to estimate distances between device and the next — which means it’s not the most reliable means of determining how close any two people actually were to each other. This leads to the risk of generating false positives. TraceTogether, the app used in Singapore, has demonstrated an ability to minimize such false positives; Apple and Google have contacted the company to explore its technology.

This system could offer a high-tech supplement by simply using a device that billions of people already own. We all think about privacy issues: installing the App on our smartphones would interfere with our privacy, but until we see it, there’s no way of telling if it’s any more invasive than many other apps we use all the time.

Where privacy rights are a concern, any method of digital tracking should only be used for a limited time to counter any current emergency.

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