Researchers propose method to track coronavirus through smartphones while protecting privacy

The concept itself is quite simple but could be invaluable in shielding the general public from privacy violations.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to spread, research teams across the globe have been using their time and skills to come up with innovative ways that technology can help us track the illness. 

In the last week, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases has surpassed one million, with the hardest-hit countries being the US, Italy, Spain, and Germany. 

China, as the country that first reported cases of COVID-19, is known for being a surveillance state. Citizen ID numbers, data harvesting, cameras, biometrics, and smartphones are all used as tools to create digital profiles of citizens. 

While privacy advocates have watched on in dismay for years, the spy network that has taken decades to build has been instrumental in tracking the spread of coronavirus through the country (whether or not the official infection numbers released are genuine). 

Smartphones and GPS location data have been used to track the movements of citizens, and when combined with facial recognition technology, Chinese organizations have been able to create lists of coronavirus 'high-risk' individuals. 

The chaos caused by COVID-19 has led to Chinese authorities piling on the pressure for private companies to hand over citizen data for "anti-epidemic purposes," as reported by the Financial Times, and while there is fear such requirements could become a permanent fixture of Chinese society -- tightening censorship even further -- governments across the globe are, nonetheless, taking lessons from how China has applied technology to the outbreak. 

Many of us in the West have a smartphone, of which modern devices come with GPS functionality for maps, directions, and local apps. Smartphones could be used as tools to monitor new cases and trace the activities of those newly-diagnosed or suspected to have the respiratory illness -- but privacy needs to be respected. 

South Korea has created a map of hotspots based on smartphone data. Singapore has created an application to monitor the movements of COVID-19 patients. Germany is reportedly considering following suit. 

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The UK Information Commissioner's Office has deemed these apps as acceptable as long as data is anonymized, and it is this remover of personal trackers that the Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) initiative, a new overseer of mobile infection-tracking projects, has highlighted as key to protecting our rights to privacy. 

Now, researchers from Boston University have come up with a new method to make sure this is the case. 

In a paper published on Thursday (.PDF), computer science experts Ari Trachtenberg, Mayank Varia, and Ran Canetti explained how cellphones could be used to help official organizations track COVID-19 -- especially as we may expect future waves when quarantine measures and lockdowns are lifted. 

Participation, however, should be voluntary. As noted by Trachtenberg, anything else may create significant legal, moral, and bureaucratic consequences. 

It works like this: an app could be created that leverages short-range broadcast technology, such as NFC, Bluetooth, or SSID broadcasts, to send out a randomly-generated ID to neighbors. 

This randomized ID number changes based on a timeframe -- which could be one minute, five minutes, or every day -- so the number is not easily tracked or usable for pinpointing a user's location. 

Numbers are kept on the devices themselves, together with timestamps, as well as any other numbers that have been broadcast nearby. 

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"When a person is tested positive for COVID-19, the person could choose (through the administrating medical professional) to voluntarily share their list of random numbers -- either their own generated numbers or the numbers that the app observed," Trachtenberg explained in a Medium blog post

These numbers could then be sent to medical authorities and organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) or US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The mobile device could also connect to databases and check whether or not a user may have been in contact with a new case, and therefore need to self-isolate or be tested. 

"This work does not propose any direct medical treatment," the paper reads. "Rather, it proposes a way to pool together information from the community in order to help (a) direct medical personnel in how to best allocate and use testing resources, and (b) direct
individuals as to when to get tested and self-quarantine."

These kinds of mobile apps could be a way to limit the potential abuse of directly linking GPS or location data to an individual -- especially if coronavirus-tracking projects are long-term. 

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"The information shared is just random numbers, without any obvious link to personal information," Trachtenberg commented. "The random numbers break up the user's location history by varying them over time [...] the approach is dead simple and does not require any sophisticated math."

The Boston University team is soliciting feedback for the idea and say while they have the technical expertise, they would need assistance from those from the medical field to develop the application. 

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