Since Google and Apple announced the Covid-19 Tracking App on the 10th of April, there has a lot of debate going on lately about how to use technology and location tracking applications to help fight the Coronavirus.
There are many different points of view on the topic. From those who share (justified) concerns about the user privacy, to the skeptical ones that think such apps will not be succesful, because they depend on people having a smartphone and actively deciding to install the app.
On the other hand, the early diagnosis of people with Coronavirus can help in getting them the required medical attention as well as stopping the spread of the virus. Thus, it is important to use every tool at our reach to achieve this.
Since this is a website about cellular network positioning, and not politics, we will skip most of the social debate and focus on explaining how such tracking apps work.
Covid-19 Tracking Apps: who is in?
This section will give an overview of the position of different countries around the world with respect to contact tracing applications, their potential benefits and their obvius risk for the user’s privacy.
Singapore was one of the first countries to announce a smartphone application, TraceTogether, to help track people who had been in contact with newly diagnosed coronavirus cases. The fact that Singapore seemed to escape the first wave of the disease resulted in a lot of people talking about the efficiency of contact tracing applications.
However, the covid cases have increased in the country in the past week. The Singaporean government claims that only 1 out of 6 citizens have installed the app, which is not sufficient. Further government sources also warn that, although tracking apps can be very helpful, they cannot replace manual tracing.
The European Commission has also approved the use of contact tracing applications to help during the coronavirus pandemic. However, with the user privacy in mind (a very important topic for the EU), the EC experts published a guideline on the do’s and don’ts for such applications
The privacy of the individual users and the security of the communication must be at the core of Covid-19 tracing apps if they are going to be used within the EU. Furthermore, the collected data must be anomysed, usage of the app shall remain voluntary and the apps life span is limited to the duration of the pandemic.
The australian government has also announced the inminent launch of a “sophisticated” app to track the coronavirus victims and whom they have been in contact with. However, in order to tackle potential privacy and security concerns, members of the government promised a “systematic assessment” of the app’s impact in user privacy.
This additional assessment could delay the launch of the app, which was initially planned for two weeks after the announcement on the 14th of April. Australia is aiming at a 40% app adoption rate by the population, which will surely help in make the Covid-19 tracking app effective.
The United States is also considering to roll out digital contact tracing applications. Instead of developing yet another brand new app, the US is likely to rely on already existing applications, such as the Google and Apple app that we mentioned at the start of this post or the MIT’s Privacy Kit:Safepass.
Although both contract tracing applications collect only anonymous data, the US people have expressed their concern that anonymous data could be “des-anonymized”. A summary of the potential risks of tracking applications in the wrong hands has been collected in the whitepaper “Apps Gone Rogue: Maintaining Personal Privacy in an Epidemic“.
Other countries around the world have been also using positioning technologies to help with coronavirus one way or another. South Korea keeps a travel log of people infected with the coronavirus desease.
In South America, Argentina’s CoTrack application is another example of how the location based services are being put to use in the fight against the pandemia. So does Colombia as well.
In Europe, Norway has a centralized health app that stores location data of the users for 30 days to help with the contact tracing. The UK is also working on their own Covid-19 tracking app.
Apart from contact tracking apps, there have been also other type of applications developed for the coronavirus pandemic. Symptom trackers, apps showing covid statistics and much more.
Another type of app that also relies on the location based services are the quarantine enforcement apps. These applications allow the government to locate the users and check if they are following the corresponding quarantine rules.
Examples of these apps are the Alipay Health Code app (China) or the Polish Home Quarantine (Kwarantanna Domowa). Hong-Kong, for example, uses a tracking app in combination with electronic bracelets to locate people in quarantine. It is important to differentiate this type of applications from the Covid-19 Tracking Apps. More information on how the quarantine enforcement applications work and their impact of the user’s privacy can be consulted in the privacy international website.
As with any other aspect of the virtual world, Covid-19 tracking applications are not free from malicious agents and cybersecurity threats. Users should also check for frauds and malware when installing new applications. There has been reports on ransomware apps that will lock the phone and ask for a bitcoin payment to unlock it.
Ok, now we know which countries and companies are involved in the Covid-19 tracking app development and deployment. But what about the technology that makes it possible?
Some of the apps, as it is the case of South Korea, rely on GNSS information to track the user movements. GNSS technology is widely available around the globe. However, it may not be the best fit for this type of use. GNSS signal has impairments indoors and in dense urban canyon scenarios. The main objective of a Covid-19 tracking solution is not to know the absolute location of the user, but who has he or she been in close contact (<1.5m) with.
There are other technologies better suited for proximity detection. Most of the covid-19 tracking applications rely on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE or BT-LE). The app configures the smartphone to transmit a uniquely identifiable bluetooth low energy beacon. Other smartphones in the proximity (using the same Covid-19 tracking app) can receive and identify this beacon and associate it to a particular user.
When someone is diagnosed with coronavirus, the contact tracing application can check which beacons are stored in the database and alert them the respective users that they have been in close contact with a diagnosed person.