Contact-tracing App seems to be a new perspective that may offer an alternative to how coronavirus cases are being traced. Google and Apple have teamed up to develop a new app for iPhones and Android phones.
The new app offers interoperability that has been lacking in the government’s methods of tracing. Google and Apple’s collaboration has helped to develop the app to its first phase, and so far, it appears promising as its features beat the common challenges in contact-tracing.
According to them, it is designed to function logistically and technologically effectively. The app uses Bluetooth Low Energy. Every smartphone with the app spots when another phone is close, and the two phones exchange identifier beacons anonymously. While there is data exchange between the two users, no one has access to it or can use it. The data exchanged by the app can only be used when it is needed.
To break it down, when one comes in contact with another person who also has the app, and their phones do the exchange thing. If any of the contacts tests positive for coronavirus, they enter this information in the Public Health Authority’s app. The phones that have come in contact with the person who tested positive will be alerted with the information, and instructed on what step to take. That’s the making of phase 1.
Phase 2 is where the magic lies. The tracing app function is inbuilt, there is no need to download the app. All a user needs for the contact-tracing to work is the function in his phone. But there is a challenge. The iOS supporting the function is from 13, from iPhone 6S or similar apple devices released from 2015. The Android version is compatible with marshmallow phones – OS phones released from 2015. So the inbuilt version of the contact-tracing app will not be widely in use.
Phase 1 will be available next month while phase 2 is expected in two months to follow.
The privacy issue is developed in a way that phone users don’t have access to any information. The data collected is only accessible by health authorities.
It is hoped that the app will help in making contact-tracing easier and cut the amount of time and resources that governments are investing in tracing suspected cases.
Already, many countries are considering the use of contact-tracing app as cases of COVID-19 spread around the world. It is hoped even, that using the app will result in lifting lockdowns.
Singapore is using TraceTogether, an app using Relative Signal Strength Indicator (RSSI), which reads between devices across time to approximate the proximity and the encounter between two users. The proximity and information is stored on one’s phone 21 days on a rolling basis, and deletes after.
If a person tests positive for COVID-19, the Ministry of Health will work with them to map out their activity for the past 14 days. And if the person has the app on his phone, he can allow the MOH to access his phone and check the TraceTogether Bluetooth proximity data. That makes it quicker for the MOH to trace suspected cases.
Australia is thinking in that direction, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday the government is working with the Australian Signals Directorate, to develop something similar to the TraceTogether app. While the app offers faster alternatives in contact-tracing, it poses many questions that would-be users are interested in. They are mainly about privacy, battery life and if it will be compulsory that everyone download it.
Morrison said that the government will ask people to download the app to hasten the efforts to curtail the virus, comparing it to buying bonds during war.
“In the war, people bought war bonds to get in behind the national effort. What we’re doing in fighting this fight is we’ll be asking people to download an app which helps us trace the virus quickly and the more people will do that, the more we can get back to a more liveable set of arrangements,” he said.
Following Apple and Google’s announcement earlier that they plan to release APIs – or ways in which programmers can access applications and data that will make it easier for them to build contact-tracing apps; many countries have indicated interest in developing their own tracing apps.
So far, France, the UK, the United States, China, Singapore, South Korea and a pan-European group are all working to develop their own app, while some have already developed theirs.
While the contact-tracing app offers hope of speedy tracing of contacts, there is skepticism that the apps will offer any other thing beyond that.
“The virus doesn’t care about technology. The virus only cares about transmission,” said Phil Booth, co-coordinator of Medconfidential, a medical data-protection lobby firm. “The thing that keeps us safe is lockdown. The thing that reduces the reproduction number of the virus is the extent and severity of its lockdown. No-one has shown that contact-tracing apps by themselves have anything like that effect.