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The New Reality of COVID-19—These Smartphone Apps Track Infected People Nearby

With anonymized and aggregated phone tracking now helping governments fight coronavirus, the next wave of technology will be digital contract tracing.

These opt-in applications combine Bluetooth’s Relative Signal Strength Indicator, a duration timer and a masked identifier to timeline those coming into potential contact with new COVID-19 patients. Unfortunately, the apps also require a huge percentage of a country’s population to voluntarily install them to be effective.

Such is the likelihood that such apps will become part of our post-lockdown new normal, that the current debate is whether we should allow such systems to be developed and deployed country by country or agree a cross-border solution.

This is currently coming to a head in Europe, where the EU's privacy watchdog has now called for a pan-European app rather than a mix and match approach.

Two weeks ago, Europe also explored options for tracking to monitor border crossings between and within countries to tackle a pandemic such as COVID-19. That idea stalled, but last week the EU announced its own contact tracing app.

Dubbed Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing, the program will launch first in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel is a supporter, but will then face the challenge of converting other countries now pursuing their own plans.

Using phone tracking for contact tracing has already been used in China to great effect: We know you were sitting next to Patient A on the train last week, you may now be infected.

The U.K. also has plans for its own bluetooth contact tracing app, but again this would be governmental. As if to emphasize that point, according to a Wired report on April 7th, the NHS, which is behind the software, is considering using the app “to enforce social distancing,” warning people if they get too close to others or if they spend too much time outside or away from their homes. For its part, the NHS has denied any such plans.

The downside of optional apps is the percentage of the population needing to opt-in and install the software for it to be useful. And that’s a steep ask. It’s one thing to trace phones without arousing a public outcry, quite another to prompt a person to install an app and run it on their phones. The reality is that contact tracing China-style remains the most effective way of making this work.

Coronavirus phone tracking will not end when Europe and America ease lockdown restrictions in the summer. We will retain the need for population and infection monitoring, levels of contact tracing, permission to return to work, isolation and quarantines, and the possibility of further lockdowns next winter. From a surveillance perspective, this new normal is only just beginning.


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