This COVID-19 Contact Tracing App Uses Bluetooth, Wont Log Your Location

Australias federal government has announced plans to introduce a contact tracing mobile app to help curb COVID-19s spread across the country.

However, rather than collecting location data directly from mobile operators, the proposed TraceTogether app will use Bluetooth technology to sense whether users who have voluntarily opted-in have come within nine metres of one another.

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Contact tracing apps generally store 14-21 days of interaction data between participating devices to help monitor the spread of a disease. The tracking is usually done by government agencies. This form of health surveillance could help the Australian government respond to the coronavirus crisis by proactively placing confirmed and suspected cases in quarantine.

The TraceTogether app has been available in Singapore since March 20, and its reception there may help shed light on how the new tech will fare in Australia.

Your Location is Not Being Tracked

TraceTogether
TraceTogether
Government Technology Agency (GovTech) staff demonstrate Singapores new contact-tracing smarthphone app called TraceTogether, as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus in Singapore on March 20, 2020. (CATHERINE LAI/AFP via Getty Images)

Internationally, contact tracing is being explored as a key means of containing the spread of COVID-19. The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies three basic steps to any form of contact tracing: contact identification, contact listing, and follow-up.

Contact identification records the mobile phone number and a random anonymised user ID. Contact listing includes a record of users who have come into close contact with a confirmed case, and notifies them of next steps such as self-isolation. Finally, follow-up entails frequent communication with contacts to monitor the emergence of any symptoms and test accordingly to confirm.

The TraceTogether app has been presented as a tool to protect individuals, families and society at large through a community data-driven approach. Details on proximity and contact duration are shared between devices that have the app installed. An estimated 17% of Singapores population has done this.

In an effort to preserve privacy, the apps developers claim it retains proximity and duration details for 21 days, after which the oldest days record is deleted and the latest days data is added.

TraceTogether supposedly doesnt collect users location data—thereby mitigating concerns about location privacy usually linked to such apps. But proximity and duration information can reveal a great deal about a users relative distance, time and duration of contact. A bluetooth-based app may not know where you are on Earths surface, but it can accurately infer your location when bringing a variety of data together.

No Perfect Solution Exists

The introduction of a contact tracing app in Australia will allow health authorities to alert community members who have been in contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19.

However, as downloading the app is voluntary, its effectiveness relies on an uptake from a certain percentage of Australians – specifically 40%, according to an ABC report.

But this proposed model overlooks several factors. First, it doesnt account for accessibility by vulnerable individuals who may not own or be able to operate a smartphone, potentially including the elderly or those living with cognitive impairment. Also, its presently unclear whether privacy and security issues have been or will be integrated into the functional design of the system when used in Australia.

This contact tracing model is also not open source software, and as such is not subject to audit or oversight. As it has currently been deployed in Singapore, it also places a government authority in control of the transfer of valuable contact and connection details. The question is now how these systems will stack up against corporate implementations like that being proposed by Google and Apple.

Also, those who criticise contact tracing point out that the technology is “after the fact” when it is too late, rather than preventive in nature, although it might act to lower transmission rates. Some research has proposed a more preemptive approach, location intelligence, implemented by responsible artificial intelligence, to predict (and respond to) how an outbreak might play out.

Others argue that if were all self-isolating, there should be no need for unproven technology, and that attention may instead be focused on Read More – Source