Tracing Coronavirus Contacts Using Phones and Bluetooth

Author photo: Jim Frazer
ByJim Frazer
Industry Trends

Do mobile phones and their embedded Bluetooth technologies offer a compelling and dramatic solution for tracking the spread of coronavirus.  Recently published work from researchers in the UK offers some interesting guidance in this area. 

Coronavirus, bluetooth and your mobile phone

On March 31, 2020, the magazine Science published a research article entitled, "Quantifying SARS-CoV-2 transmission suggests epidemic control with digital contact tracing" 

Within the article, the authors state: 

"A mobile phone App can make contact tracing and notification instantaneous upon case confirmation. By keeping a temporary record of proximity events between individuals, it can immediately alert recent close contacts of diagnosed cases and prompt them to self-isolate.

Apps with similar aims have been deployed in China. Public health policy was implemented using an App that was not compulsory but was required to move between quarters and into public spaces and public transport. The App allows a central database to collect data on user movement and coronavirus diagnosis and displays a green, amber or red code to relax or enforce restrictions on movement. The database is reported to be analyzed by an artificial intelligence algorithm that issues the color codes. The App is a plug-in for the WeChat and Alipay Apps and has been generally adopted.

Also on March 31st, the UK government has announced a near-term though not-yet-released app which alerts people if they come too close to someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus.

This contact tracking application is expected to be released just before or just after the UK lockdown is lifted. according to Sky News and to those with close knowledge of the project. Since it is expected to be released on an opt-in basis, participation will be voluntary. The UK National Health Service hopes that the app will attract more than 50% of the population as significant market penetration is required for maximum effectiveness.

The app is expected to rely upon short-range Bluetooth signals, then store a record of those contacts on the device. Then, if someone tests positive for COVID-19, they will be able to upload those contacts, who can then be alerted via the app.

Subsequently, on April 1, A group of European experts announced that they too would soon launch technology for smartphones to help trace people who had come into contact with those infected with the coronavirus. 

The European initiative, called Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT, follows the successful use of smartphones in some Asian countries to track the spread of the virus and enforce quarantine orders.

While these methods look very promising in impacting the spread of this virus,  care also needs to be exerted in order to conform to EU data privacy directives, and to HIPA statutes in the US - if such applications are released there.


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