Contact Tracing Apps Explained

Contact Tracing Apps Explained
May 6, 2020 Michael Corbett

One of the biggest concerns about reopening businesses and venues across the country is the risk of reigniting the spread of COVID-19. Up until this point, individuals who test positive are asked to retrace the people and places they recently interacted with. This slow and arduous process, while effective, becomes increasingly difficult to execute as the numbers cases increase. Fortunately, smartphone innovations and adoption rates over the last ten years have prepared us for such a challenge as COVID-19 and future infectious disease outbreaks. 

According to 2019 Pew Research data, 81% of American’s own a smartphone. Approximately 99% of those smartphones are powered by Apple’s iOS operating system and Google’s Android operating system. This means the basis for a tool to help slow the spread is literally already in our hands.

Apple (Apple Inc.) and Google (Alphabet, Inc.) are working together to develop a comprehensive Contact Tracing System that relies on Bluetooth rather than on GPS. This short-range wireless contact (or handshake) offered by Bluetooth is very similar to the physical distancing model where people can potentially contact the virus from someone infected. The application programming interface (API) will enable interoperability between iOS and Android devices. 

For an illustrated look at how the app works in practice, check out Google’s overview of the COVID-19 Contact Tracing system

If this sounds scary, Apple and Google have stated that they will openly publish information about their work for others to analyze. Apple and Google’s software would maintain a central record with identifying information from the phones of those who test positive. Still, they assure the exposed users will remain anonymous.

Some states are working on apps that utilize GPS and Bluetooth. Health officials argue that GPS location data needs to work with the new contact tracing system to better track outbreaks and hotspots. Apple and Google disagree, pointing to privacy issues and battery drain therefore they are not allowing GPS to be used with their API. This draws a line in the sand for developers, government, and health officials for app development.

Other apps in development are designed to help businesses get back to work while keeping employees safe.

One such app called ClearPass from Red Level. With every employee equipped with the app, employees can screen for COVID-19 symptoms and warning signs right on their mobile devices before they enter the workplace. Employees can manage the number of employees admitted to each of the work locations throughout the day to comply with local regulations. They also tout a pre-registration and employees and guests queues for visiting specific areas and automatically alert them when it’s their time to enter. Automatically alert HR when a failed self-health declaration has been submitted or share company news and prevention tips with the whole team.

The University at Buffalo is developing an app called PocketCare+. The app also shares some of the self-diagnosing aspects of ClearPass and Apple COVID-19 App, but its primary function is that of a contact tracing system. Utilizing Bluetooth, GPS, and WiFi (to save battery life when available), it only stores location information on your device but records interactions of infected users on a hosted server.

Privacy advocates have concerns over the collection of location data and device IDs related to an individual’s health. Such data could be used to ostracize businesses or individuals if it were to get into the wrong hands.

Time will tell whether these developments are embraced enough for them to have a profound impact. Apple and Google’s commitment to developing a system together is a great step. Still, it is left up to the individual to participate.

For businesses, in the name of the safety of employees and customers, using an app may become mandatory for employment. After all, drug screening has been a common requirement for many companies and industries for the same reason, the safety of ourselves and those around us. Welcome to the new normal.

 

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