Mobile Location Data: An Indispensable Tool in Our Fight Against COVID-19?

April 22, 2020 - 7 minutes read

It’s rare for Apple and Google to team up on a project, but the two companies recently announced a new plan to use signals from their combined 3 billion smartphones to track the COVID-19 pandemic. The technology would make a record in the system when two people come in close contact (without including their identity or specific location) according to their phone’s Bluetooth connectivity.

The companies stressed that users’ privacy would be protected in the use of this technology, but epidemiologists are concerned about other factors involved in this ambitious plan: inadequate testing in the U.S., users’ voluntary participation, and constraints of the technology itself.

How the Tracing Tech Works

The two tech giants are offering to develop a custom mobile application that changes your phone into a broadcaster of a unique cryptographically-generated code through Bluetooth. The code itself wouldn’t include any name data or location data, and because it’s cryptographically-generated, it wouldn’t be possible to back-calculate which person had which code.

When another person comes in close contact (meaning within 10 to 15 feet), their phone would record your unique code and store it for 14 days. When someone tests positive for COVID-19, they’d upload this information to their phone, and their code would be uploaded to the main database. If another person recorded an encounter near the COVID-19 patient, they’d be alerted that they were in close proximity to someone who tested positive for the infection.

This plan automates contact tracing of people, and it could help the public control the spread of the disease by recommending isolation and testing to those who were near an infected person. Public health officials could follow along with the tracing map and even be alerted when their region hits a certain number of cases.

The proposed digital contact tracing concept isn’t a novel idea: over the past few weeks, dozens of third-party research teams and cybersecurity experts had the idea to leverage Bluetooth and cryptography to create a map of infected, close contacts, and possibly infected people.

COVID-19 Presents Some Unique Challenges

On March 31st, researchers published an analysis in the journal Science that showed that the COVID-19 virus spreads so quickly through contagious patients who aren’t sick that it would be extremely difficult to contain the virus through regular manual contact tracing alone.

Michael Mina is an assistant professor at the Harvard Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics. Mina says Google and Apple’s plan is “the way of the future.”

But epidemiologists warn that digital contact tracing alone isn’t a good enough solution for the virus outbreak. In most parts of the world, tests are given to patients who are exhibiting clear symptoms. And the numbers show that many people already have the virus but are completely asymptomatic.

In the U.S., less than 3 million Americans have been tested, which is less than 1% of the country. Many more Americans must be infected but asymptomatic, and unless they’re tested, they’re not going to be helpful for this type of digital tracing project.

Sham Kakade is a computer scientist at Seattle-based University of Washington. He’s also a co-author of PACT (Private Automated Contact Tracing), an initiative that’s similar to contact tracing protocols.

Kakade says, “The only way that these [sorts] of things can be effective is if you test far more cases than come up positive. This kind of alert also needs to be adjusted to how many tests we can give.” That means, in the U.S., with our current testing numbers, this type of technology is basically useless.

Additionally, with Bluetooth, it’s impossible to know if the person 15 feet away is behind a glass wall, over in the next aisle of the grocery store, in their car at a stoplight, or right behind you.

User Concerns

The two tech giants are no stranger to user privacy concerns. In this case, the companies say, users will have to install an app to become a part of the contact tracing system. Actually, to be truly effective, the app needs to be downloaded by 50% to 70% of the population, according to an analysis by third-party researchers. This would help symptomatic patients figure out where they contracted the disease, and it would reduce the number of people that asymptomatic patients unknowingly infect.

Singapore, a country with more disciplined citizens and fewer privacy issues than the U.S., created this type of app on March 20. It’s been a month since then, and less than one-fourth of the population has downloaded the app.

Since the Google-Apple app requires people to self-report a positive test result, some experts are concerned that the system will show too many contacts. This could overwhelm public health officials, create distrust in users, and cause users to question the value and efficacy of the system.

Lastly, getting users to participate is another huge issue for this digital contact tracing plan. Google and Apple want to create an API (application programming interface) that public health officials could use to create their own custom apps.

A Tool for Future Pandemics?

Although the challenges and user concerns are seemingly enormous, they don’t necessarily outweigh the benefits that this type of technology offers. There’s no doubt that there will be another pandemic in the future, and now is the time to fix bugs, make changes, and optimize the technology and its applications. If we can do this now, then we’ll be a lot more prepared when the next infectious disease starts spreading globally.

Would you download the Google-Apple app onto your mobile phone? Do you think it could be useful for future crises? Let us know in the comments below!

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