The world embraces contact-tracing technology to fight COVID-19
NEW YORK — COVID-19 has killed more than 200,000 people worldwide and triggered a severe recession. Governments want to get people back to work, and a key part of this is contact-tracing technology that helps authorities track the virus and warn citizens who may be infected to stay home or get tested.
Tech companies have jumped at the opportunity, with the highest-profile effort coming from Apple Inc. and Google. These tech giants aren’t alone, though. Here’s a round-up of initiatives from around the world:
Compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. is behind in developing contact-tracing apps. There is no official national system, and a patchwork of apps have sprung up at the state and even municipal level.
Apple and Google plan to released the first version of their contact-tracing system by the middle of May. This will let health agencies build apps that allow a person who tests positive for COVID-19 to input their diagnosis. The system will then use Bluetooth technology to learn who the person has come into contact with and then notify those people of a possible exposure. A second phase, to be rolled out in the coming months, will have deeper integration with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems to rely less on apps.
In early April, a startup repurposed an app that had been used by football fans traveling to far-off championships to begin tracking COVID-19 in North and South Dakota. It’s anonymous, but uses location data to track where people go. If someone tests positive, public health authorities can use the historical data to figure out who else should be tested and quarantined. When Apple and Google’s tool launches, it will be integrated into the app, according to the North Dakota government’s website. Utah’s HealthyTogether app uses Bluetooth and location data to track people’s whereabouts and go back to see who they might have been in contact with if they test positive. The app also lets people input their symptoms and connects them to a testing center if they’re deemed high risk. Nodle, a startup that has developed Bluetooth applications in the past, is building its own app that follows similar principles to Apple and Google’s plan. Using Bluetooth, it keeps tabs on interactions between people, and can notify users if they’ve come into contact with someone who has Covid-19. It’s a global app but is being tested in Berkeley, Calif., right now.
Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state is building a “tracing army” to track the origin of individual COVID-19 coronavirus cases and reduce the spread of the virus. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Bloomberg Philanthropies are donating $10.5 million to the effort. (Michael Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)
China, South Korea and Singapore have led the way in developing contact-tracing systems. Some governments already had systems in place, having learned from the SARS epidemic 15 years ago.
South Korean white hat hackers and self-taught coders jumped into the development of tracing apps as early as January, even before there was a domestic outbreak. Coronamap.site, created by a university student, informs users of the movements of confirmed patients and places where infected people have circulated. The government has also developed an app to enforce quarantine orders, which uses location data and tracks whether smartphone users have turned off their GPS. About 90% of people under self-quarantine had installed the government app as of April 13.
China’s tech giants stepped in early to help the government contain the pandemic. Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s Alipay and Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s WeChat, the country’s primary digital payment channels, already tracked the consumer activity of hundreds of millions of users. During the outbreak, both companies released QR code systems that can be read by smartphones and allow authorities to designate which people pose health risks and need to be quarantined and which ones can use public spaces and transportation. The government is using the technology extensively to police the country as it gets back on its feet. Alibaba’s system assigns each user one of three colors -- green, yellow or red -- based on their location, health information and travel history. Green allows freedom of movement, while yellow and red indicate that people must self-quarantine or enter a supervised quarantine facility, respectively. The system has been widely adopted.
Singapore was among the first to roll out a contact-tracing app. TraceTogether launched on March 20, and more than a million of Singapore’s 5.7 million residents installed it by mid-April. The system uses Bluetooth, and data are crunched securely on each individual’s phone, making it a precursor to the Apple and Google plan. Due to relatively low adoption, the country still had to institute a strict lockdown. India’s contact-tracing app, Aarogya Setu was downloaded by more than 50 million people in just 13 days at the urging of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The app collects lots of sensitive information, and can use it in more ways, which prompted criticism from privacy advocates. More than 2 million Australians have downloaded the government contact-tracing app, which uses Bluetooth instead of GPS data. That’s well below the 40% of the population that need to use it for the system to be effective, according to the government’s estimates.
The European Union has published guidelines for contact-tracing apps. The requirements dictate that apps should be voluntary, approved by national health authorities, preserve user privacy and should be dismantled as soon as they are no longer needed. Interoperability is key so tracing can continue even when citizens start to cross borders again.
Iceland’s app, called Rakning C-19, uses smartphone location data, which must be enabled at all times to work. Once set up, the app runs in the background and saves the phone’s location several times per hour, storing the data on the phone itself and deleting it after 14 days. Using location instead of Bluetooth can give health authorities richer data about the virus’s spread, but it also makes it easier for governments to track individuals in a way that could infringe on privacy.
Austria and Switzerland are building apps based on an approach called DP-3T, designed collaboratively by researchers to preserve user privacy. Some of its principles are similar to Google and Apple’s approach, and it uses Bluetooth in the same way. The effort is strictly opposed to centralized apps that let governments and health authorities store and access information.
SAP SE and Deutsche Telekom are working with Germany to build the country its own contact-tracing app. Data were originally supposed to be stored on a central server, but after criticism about a lack of privacy, the country opted for a decentralized approach, following the principles outlined by Apple and Google. The U.K.’s National Health Service is building its own app that will store information centrally so virus trackers can have more information to work with. NHS engineers were able to tweak existing software from Apple and Google to make the Bluetooth app work even when running in the background.
In Israel, the government ordered telecom carriers to share data with security services for contact-tracing. The plan gave authorities access to detailed data that usually is reserved for military purposes. In April, the country’s Supreme Court said the order was illegal and the government needs to pass official legislation allowing the program, or shut it down completely.
Developer SoftMining introduced a contact-tracing app in Italy in March. Soon after, hacking groups launched Android knock-offs with malicious code capable of opening backdoors into personal devices, according to security researchers.