The Goa government recently launched a COVID-19 Locator mobile app in its fight against the coronavirus outbreak. The GPS-based mobile app helps in tracking suspected and asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus when they leave their quarantine zone. Many countries including China, Singapore and Israel are already using or actively considering using such location-based apps to aid contact-testing and quarantining efforts at scale.
Digital tracing is important in disease control and when widely deployed, has been shown to be more effective than traditional methods. Several frameworks for building contact tracing apps have been developed, but a primary issue is a privacy, about location-based systems. There are pros and cons to every approach and so it is worth taking a closer look at how these systems work.
COVID-19 apps can collect the geographical location of patients while they are in quarantine and can be used to monitor whether people are staying indoors or moving around outside, against medical orders. In contact tracing with Bluetooth, it can be used to determine if they have been in contact with patients and they can then get notifications to get tested. This is a more efficient and safer way to help contact tracing than the traditional method which requires human contact and increased risk of contagion.
Additionally, there are other frameworks and systems being developed to help contact tracing and quarantine efforts.
Privacy-preserving contact tracing is a well-established concept, and European expert groups and academicians are working on solutions using Bluetooth Low Energy to log a user’s proximity to other cellphones. Users who have been in proximity with patients will receive notifications to tested.
Earlier in April, Google announced a joint initiative for privacy-preserving contact tracing that would use Bluetooth Low Energy technology and privacy-preserving cryptography. It will be based on the DP-3T protocol developed during this pandemic. This initiative would integrate functionality to support Bluetooth-based apps directly into Android and iOS OS. Phase two of this initiative proposes that the OS will be able to trace exposure without requiring to download a COVID-19 app.
Centralized network-based location tracking eliminates the need to download apps, instead of relying on tracking information gathered from a variety of sources. Notifications to get tested or self-quarantine is sent to people who may be infected.
Worldwide, efforts to develop contact tracing apps are on, led by academic and government research institutes. As more efficient ways of contact tracing are being developed, it is hoped more people can get access to timely information and take the next steps to stay safe.