A Way Out of COVID: Your Smartphone Watching Your Every Step

Since late December, the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc around the globe. Because it is so highly contagious, COVID-19 spreads like wildfire, swiftly infecting scores of unsuspecting individuals caught in its path.

Public health officials have been tenacious in their attempts to contain the deadly strain but the real solution is tracking who is sick, even if they don’t know it yet.

Because the virus spreads so rapidly, it is difficult to monitor or determine how many other people have been infected through contact with those who have tested positive.

These problems are compounded by the fact that many individuals who have contracted the virus are asymptomatic. They simply exhibit none of the symptoms of others who have tested positive for the virus.

Given these realities, one of the most pressing problems for combating this scourge becomes how to curtail the ability of the pandemic to swiftly infect vast swaths of the population.

To date, a nationwide lock down — and its terrible effects on the economy — has been the main public health policy implemented to stem the pandemic.

Contact-tracing efforts adopted by some of the states are labor-intensive and time-consuming. The constant movement of infected individuals has to be entered by hand. Whoever an exposed person has been in close proximity needs to be contacted by phone.

One untried but potentially effective means of tracking the virus would be to trace the movements of individuals throughout the country by monitoring location data obtained from their smartphones.

American epidemiologists have been studying how Chinese public health officials used this type of tracking technology to effectively contain the number of people infected through contact with other carriers of COVID-19.

The mobile phone tracking system also was used effectively in Singapore last year. Epidemiologists in the U.S. want to replicate that city’s success in mitigating a wave of outbreaks.

How smartphone tracing works

In April, Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOGL) announced plans to develop contact tracking apps that could be downloaded to users’ smartphones. Both companies are adept at software development and have billions of users worldwide.

The companies indicated that the contact tracing tools they are developing would be incorporated right into individuals existing smartphones. The software would use current Bluetooth technology that can track whether two app-equipped phones have passed within a certain distance of one another.

If a user tests positive for COVID-19 and chooses to participate in the system, other smartphones will be able to search through their phones location data to ascertain whether they came close enough, long enough, to risk potential exposure.

Individuals unaware of their potential infection risk who have opted-in would receive a notification on their smartphones. One sample warning would alert users with large-font texts such as “Warning,” or “Alert” notifying them that they have been recently exposed to an individual who has tested positive for COVID and providing instructions on what to do next.

Potential effectiveness

In order for the contact tracing system to be effective, a relatively high number of smartphone users in the country would have to opt in. Some experts claim that in order for the strategy to be effective in slowing the spread of the virus at least 60% of the population would have to be part of the tracing system and have the requisite location-tracking app installed on their phones.

For purposes of achieving a high rate of participation, it is important to note that location data capabilities can be easily disabled on most smartphones. Even those individuals who elected to opt in may inadvertently switch off their location preferences and forget to switch it back on again.

Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, acknowledges the problem. “Contact tracing is very resource intensive, and anything that could help us do that would be very valuable,” she said. The system nevertheless would need widespread adoption for achieving the necessary scale to prove useful.

A Bluetooth-based system provides certain privacy features that might increase the opt-in rate because the technology measures only an individual’s proximity to those who are infected, rather than specific location information that is tracked by GPS constantly, data that can easily point back to individual users.

The downside of using Bluetooth is that both parties in proximity, must have the apps installed in order for their phones to exchange relevant data.

Another difficulty with implementing a uniform nationwide smartphone tracing system is that, at present, there is no coordinated effort between the federal government and the states.

Because of the constitutional power-sharing arrangement between the states and the federal government it would be difficult to implement a standardized country-wide software contact tracing capability. Some states have already designed and tested their own contact tracing smart phone applications.

It is unclear how effective these state-specific systems would be and whether they could be coordinated or compatible with the federal government’s proposed tracing software or that of other states.

Privacy issues

Unsurprisingly, many public health officials are strong advocates for the location tracking system. While this technology can to help identify those who have been put at risk of exposure, legitimate concerns have been raised about privacy issues and the potential for abuse of users’ personal information as well as potential security breaches.

The proposed tracing apps would ask users for personal, highly private information. Even though Apple and Google might claim that the individual’s identity or specific geographic location would never be disclosed, many people nonetheless would be reluctant to enter such personal information. And, who can blame them?

Many large tech companies such as Facebook have questionable records when it comes to protecting private personal information and controlling its dissemination.

For one, users of contact tracing apps similarly would have had no control over which third parties collect or harvest their private data and how that information is used.

Additionally, the contact tracing apps developed by some states might be geographic-location-based systems, where personal information would be more exposed, and could lack the privacy protections of the limited reach of Bluetooth-based tracing systems.

While there is talk about the necessity of tracking individuals by way of location data in order to limit or mitigate exposure risk, there are still numerous obstacles that need to be overcome.

Resolving untoward privacy issues and achieving the requisite high participation levels, are two of the thorniest challenges facing public health officials as they look for ways to lift the lock down orders that have all but paralyzed economic and social activity in the country.