Contact Tracing Using Smartphones

April 13, 2020

As a follow up to last month’s post about whether using user data to fight coronavirus is a good idea, Issoy is providing an update on where this issue stands in the U.S. today.

Privacy advocates in the U.S. are still concerned about providing user data that could be used in other situations outside of helping to halt the spread of coronavirus. However, some steps have allayed many fears about these privacy issues as new technological solutions are coming to light.

Contact tracing is one of the ways that the spread of coronavirus and other sicknesses is tracked. Currently, the process is cumbersome and time consuming. Once someone is diagnosed with coronavirus or another life-threatening contagious illness, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) work with the person to determine who he or she has been in contact with. Through this method, scientists are able to trace back to the origin of major outbreaks. Perhaps more importantly, they can reach people who may not be showing symptoms of the illness but have been exposed and encourage them to get tested or go into quarantine to prevent them from spreading the illness to others.

Scientists have cited lack of testing as a major hurdle that must be addressed before businesses can reopen and life can resume. Contact tracing can be an important part of life as we knew it returning to normal.

Thanks to the prevalence of smartphones, contact tracing can become much more efficient. Since most already have GPS location data that is provided to the manufacturers, it is possible to create an app that shows who an infected person has come into contact with. 

For example, let’s say Sally found out she had coronavirus. Once she gets a confirmed positive test, the app accesses the places she’s been and the other people (or, more accurately, their smartphones) she’s come into contact with. The app then alerts those other people that they’ve potentially been exposed and advises them to either quarantine themselves or to see a doctor.

On the flip side, app users who haven’t been exposed will know, making it possible for them to return to work and other errands or activities in public or in groups.

But what about privacy? Using technology for contact tracing has already worked in other countries, with less emphasis on privacy and more government oversight. All the major players in developing these apps in the U.S. have agreed to delete the logs every month, and to not share the data of who has been exposed, protecting the privacy of users. The CDC will need to confirm that a patient has tested positive for the virus; after that, the app takes over and all data is protected.