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Tracking Coronavirus: Bluetooth Tracking App Proposed as an Alternative to More Invasive Methods

David Street
3 min read
Apr 3, 2020

Two recent studies from Oxford University raise the possibility of tracking a large number of individuals with a minimally invasive mobile app. The hope is that such an app would be an effective tool in controlling the spread of COVID-19. The researchers also asked residents of the UK, Germany, France, and Italy if they would install such an app. Around 80% of respondents said they probably or definitely would do so. The research suggests that such methods, if widely used, could more effectively control the spread of the virus while reducing the need for strict lockdown measures.

The app would use Bluetooth to measure close contact of 15 minutes or longer between users. If a user were found to be infected, that information would be entered into the app. All those who had close contact with the infected user would then be informed and asked to self-quarantine.

The idea is notable in that it doesn't track the exact location of users. It only tracks proximity. Users would only know about exposure to an infected person, without knowing who or where. Those processing the data, probably health officials, would only see contact between users. Users could even be made anonymous, depending on how such an application was implemented.

The details of implementation would likely be crucial. Researchers asked several questions about data security and how the app would be installed. For example, the app could be installed automatically with an option to delete or it could be optional from the start. Data could be deleted at the end of an outbreak or kept for research purposes. The 80% acceptance level should be viewed in the context of that uncertainty. The acceptance rate of an actual app, if developed, could be quite far from what the researchers observed.

While some countries can immediately impose this kind of tracking on citizens, this would not be possible in the countries surveyed. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe responded on Wednesday that such methods would have to be voluntary. In France, at least, lawmakers aren't pursuing legal methods to force people into installing and using such an app.

Experts predict that the fight with COVID-19 could be long, however. No treatments have yet been approved. The World Health Organization estimates a wait of at least 18 months for a vaccine. There may still be plenty of time to try out such methods like this proximity-tracking app. Heavy-handed approaches with forced tracking and monitoring are being used all over the world, so the development of more effective soft approaches would be welcome.

Read the full studies here:
Support for app-based contact tracing of COVID-19
Quantifying SARS-CoV-2 transmission suggests epidemic control with digital contact tracing