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Privacy Preserving Contact Tracing: How it works?

May 13, 2020


On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) stated that global economic growth could be cut in half to 1.5% in 2020 if the pandemic continues to spread. The society has also been gravely affected by the pandemic. Everyone has been asked to stay at home as social distancing becomes the new norm. Multiple businesses, restaurants, and retail stores have closed their shutters as governments enforce lockdown restrictions all over the world. Health authorities must heavily rely on contact tracing methods to curb the spread of infection. Contact tracing is already being used by various countries, including Hong Kong, Singapore, and Germany.

What is contact tracing?

Contact tracing was used during the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak, as well as in the SARS outbreak in 2003. It is also used to combat sexually transmitted infections and other communicable diseases like tuberculosis. In contact tracing, health authorities ask patients to recall everyone they have come in contact with while being infectious. After these contacts have been identified, they are warned of their potential exposure to the virus as fast as possible. In order to protect the privacy of the patients, exposed contacts are only informed that they may have been exposed to a patient with the infection. The identity of the patient is not revealed. Contacts are asked to self-isolate and maintain social distance from others for two weeks, in case they also fall prey to an infection.

Many countries have resorted to contact tracing in the wake of COVID-19. In China, around 9,000 contact tracers were employed in Wuhan alone. The Canadian government has also initiated a contact tracing program, which has garnered around 27,000 volunteers. However, using contact tracers to manually identify the primary and secondary contacts that have been exposed to the virus can take a very long time. Health authorities will need to sit down with the patients and ask them questions. These interviews can be extremely inaccurate as they rely heavily on the patient’s memory. This traditional method is highly inefficient and not at all scalable.

Because of the inaccuracy and lengthy duration of manual contact tracing, a few governments have implemented automated contact tracing. Singapore’s TraceTogether app was launched on March 20 and claims to be the first national BlueTooth based contact tracing solution in the world. The aim of the app is to make the process of contact tracing easier and faster. Currently, more than 20 countries have developed applications to use mobile data for contact tracing. However, a very large concern that arises with the apps is data privacy.

Data Privacy Concerns

In this day and age, many of us share personal information like our name, age, and address on public platforms like social media, e-commerce sites, and other applications. However, what if this data gets into the wrong hands? The development of various contact tracing apps that use the location data of citizens has brought the concern of data privacy to everyone’s minds.

Authorities in the US and the UK are coordinating with various organizations to retrieve granular location data of its citizens. They use this information to map their whereabouts and devise strategies to trace their exposure. China has expanded its mass surveillance techniques, with telecom operators tracking people’s movements and companies rolling out facial recognition technology. There have been controversies surrounding many contact tracing apps regarding the data privacy of its users. French hacker Elliot Alderson claimed that a security issue was found in India’s Aarogya Setu app and said that the privacy of 90 million Indians was at stake. Such claims can sow seeds of doubt and distrust in contact tracing applications regarding data privacy. This discourages many from downloading such apps.

Privacy-preserving Contact Tracing

Contact tracing applications can help governments all around the world curb the spread of COVID-19. However, this should not come at the cost of data privacy. Countries need to make sure that the applications that they launch for contact tracing are secure from unauthorized access. The pandemic management system that was developed by Accubits Technologies, named RebuildTheChain guarantees the protection of data privacy for all of its users. The application uses methodologies defined in PPICT-EAB protocol. Identifying the people who have come in close contact with an infected person is the main goal of contact tracing. When a person installs the application, the Bluetooth of their smartphone starts broadcasting random codes (a.k.a chirps) to nearby Bluetooth devices. The nearby Bluetooth devices capture these chirps and log them into the application. Likewise, all smartphones under close proximity share chirp between each other.

By exchanging chirps over Bluetooth the user application log encounters with each other. Chirps do not reveal the identity of the users in order to protect their privacy. The broadcasted chirps change from time to time, to prevent third parties from tracking users over time. When a person is tested positive for COVID-19, government agencies can request the user to upload the broadcast chirps from their mobile application. These chirp codes from all infected people will be uploaded to a common database. Every citizens’ application checks with this common database to see if any of the listed chirps matches with the logged received chirps in the application. If there is a match, the application will notify the user about the potential contact with an asymptomatic carrier and alert them to contact health officials via the app.

With this methodology, large scale contact tracing can be automated and governments stand a better chance to suppress the spread of the pandemic. Would you like to know more about the solution, reach out to us today.

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