As researchers race to find ways to prevent further spread of the Covid-19 virus, contact tracing is emerging as a technology that can help people know when they’ve been in close proximity to the virus and potentially reduce the spread of the deadly disease.
Many countries including South Korea, China, the United Kingdom, Israel, Germany, and Switzerland are already using Contact Tracing technology on a large scale — and lessons learned from their approach will influence how this technology is adopted by government and public health officials in the U.S. and other countries.
As new technologies emerge, public health leaders are looking to implement contact tracing in ways that are both effective in reducing the spread of the virus and ensuring individual personal health information remains private. Digital contact tracing, combined with traditional methods of identifying and informing people who have been in contact with the virus, has already proven effective in helping to slow the spread of Covid-19, avoiding larger death tolls and eventually helping world economies begin to recover.
Two Types of Contact Tracing
There are two different approaches to conducting contact tracing: Manual Contact Tracing and Digital Contact Tracing:
- Manual (or Analog) Contact Tracing uses trained medical workers to get in touch with people diagnosed with the Coronavirus, collect data about their movements and contacts, and then track down those people by phone, email, and social media to let them know their risk of infection and encourage testing and self-isolation. Manual tracing techniques have been used since the days of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, and while the methods can be slow and labor-intensive, the process has been shown to be highly effective in mitigating public health outbreaks including Ebola and SARS.
- Digital Contact Tracing runs on an app installed on your cellphone that uses the Bluetooth feature of the phone to track people you have been in close proximity to, who have shown Covid-19 illness or symptoms. The technology maintains the anonymity of the person with the illness while sending you a warning that you have been in contact with the person and maybe at risk. Like traditional contact tracing approaches, the app is designed to alert people if they pose a risk of contracting or of spreading the virus and encourages isolation for people at-risk.
The purpose of both Manual Contact Tracing and Digital Contact Tracing approaches is to get information to at-risk individuals to help limit the spread of the Coronavirus. Ultimately, the goal is to slow the spread of the disease so lockdown measures can be reduced and economies can start to recover.
How Does Digital Contact Tracing Work?
Digital Contact Tracing apps work utilizing Bluetooth technology in conjunction with GPS location data available on Apple and Android smartphones. The Bluetooth feature on your phone uses signals to keep a log of when you are close to other users and then will send you an alert if you have been near someone who develops Covid-19 symptoms.
One type of contact tracing app uses a centralized model, that takes data from your phone, makes your identity anonymous, and uploads the information to a remote server that matches your data with other contacts to look for matches of anyone who has reported Covid-19 symptoms.
Another app design, favored by Google and Apple, uses a de-centralized model, which adds an additional level of security and privacy by storing the data on your phone instead of sending it to a central server. The app on the phone then makes the match to anyone you have been near who has reported Covid-19 symptoms.
Public use of these apps has already shown success in reducing Covid-19 cases, especially in areas where the digital app technology is combined with traditional contact tracing methods.
What is the future of Contact Tracing Technology in the U.S.?
In April 2020, Google and Apple announced an unprecedented partnership to allow for the development of contact tracing apps for Android and Apple smartphones — representing 3 billion users or 40% of the world population. Since then, both companies released their APIs or Application Programming Interface, which enables interoperability between Android and iOS devices using the contact tracing apps. These official apps will be available for smartphone users to download via their respective app stores.
Now that the APIs have been released, software and app developers are scrambling to design programs that not only prove effective in tracking the Coronavirus, but also provide security measures to both protect personal data and ensure the Bluetooth technology is not breached by hackers.
One of the initial concerns with contact tracing apps is a fear that the use of Bluetooth on a cell phone could leave users vulnerable to cyber attacks through the Bluetooth feature.
Google and Apple have declared privacy and security to be their top concerns with this effort, and teams are constantly upgrading and implementing advanced encryption to the Bluetooth technology to protect people’s phones from the most sophisticated cyber attacks. In addition, their new app design has an added security feature of keeping data on each user’s phone instead of sending it out to a central database.
Syed Alam, CEO of accentedge, an IT company working on contact tracing apps using artificial intelligence, believes that contact tracing apps, combined with other public health measures, can be an effective tool in the effort to reduce Covid-19 spread in the U.S.
“For the United States and most other countries the use of contact tracing apps will be voluntary,” Alam said, “and we believe large numbers of people will embrace this technology — and that in turn will improve its effectiveness. We have already seen different types of apps being used successfully, and we are excited that Google and Apple have joined forces in this extraordinary effort.”
One reason contact tracing apps may catch on in the U.S. is many at-risk people want to use this technology. Seniors, people with medical conditions, front-line workers or a family member of any of these people, will want to have the app on their phone. The app can be used as one more tool that people will want so they have more information if they have been near someone with Coronavirus symptoms.
As traditional methods of contact tracing become less effective in reaching people with exposure to the virus, digital technology will increasingly be used. Once software developers are successful in addressing privacy issues and Bluetooth technology security concerns, users will be more likely to voluntarily use contact tracing apps on their phones. As public health officials around the world search for effective ways to reduce the spread of Covid-19, contact tracing apps promise to play a critical role in battling this pandemic.