Authorities the world over are thinking of using contact tracing to tamp down the coronavirus. This identification process can be instrumental in the fight against viral diseases.
It is basically the tracking of people who may have come into contact with someone who is infected.
Tracing the potentially infected people can help health authorities not only treat them but also prevent the transmission of the virus to other people.
During the Ebola crisis, contact tracing was used to find people who might have become infected. And since the COVID-19 can also be transmitted because of exposure, it makes sense to use this method again.
What’s changed between now and then is that we can use technology to our advantage. Systems are being considered where individuals will be alerted if they have recently been exposed to a person who has tested positive for the virus.
That’s because if health professionals rely on the memory of an infected person alone, they risk missing out on strangers that a patient came into contact with, but can’t recall. This can include, say a lady who stood in the same line as the person who has tested positive in a grocery store.
Contact tracing using Bluetooth
Bluetooth will be central to modern contract tracing systems. That’s because such a system will seemingly allow authorities to track and contain infections without intruding on privacy.
The short-range Bluetooth signals that smartphones transmit are assigned random strings of numbers. Handsets can remember each other’s beacon keys if they were in close proximity.
For tailoring it to COVID-19, only the medically significant signals will be stored. For instance, phones will only pick up chirps that were emitted within a certain distance and picked up for a predetermined duration of time.
If someone tests positives, they can choose to upload the random signal identifiers sent out in the previous 14 days to a database.
Other handsets can scan the database to see if the ones they had picked up match any on the list. If there is a match, they will get a notification. This way smartphone owners will know that they were recently in contact with someone who has tested positive.
The alert will also contain information about the steps to take next. All the while, the privacy of people will be maintained.
That’s because the numerical identifiers will be temporary and they will not be attached to a person’s identity. The numbers will also change frequently and they will be stored locally. The rotating pseudonymous numbers will be governed by cryptographic techniques to make it difficult to tie them to an individual.
Apple and Google to roll out a solution by mid-May
Apple and Google have teamed up to make an interoperable contact tracing tool that will work on an opt-in basis.
It will use Bluetooth to alert people while maintaining their privacy.
Contact tracing will allow governments around the world to slowly ease up on lockdown measures whilst reducing the risk of transmission. Even though Bluetooth based systems are less invasive than location-tracking apps, they are still not immune to privacy theft. Moreover, they are heavily dependent on widespread adoption to be effective.
And lastly, contact system tracing systems alone will not help curb the virus unless testing capacities are also adequate. Otherwise, if people aren’t being tested, they wouldn’t be able to alert others.