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How do contact tracing apps work?

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The process of identification of people who could have possibly come in contact with covid-19 infection came to be known as contact tracing. While being called exposure notification apps, the idea here is to use smartphones to slow the spread of virus by proactively finding people that are at a high risk of infection. They can be classified in three main areas:

1. Apps that use bluetooth: The ability of bluetooth technology to estimate distance between two devices makes it a good tool for contact tracing. When a person tests positive for covid-19, health authorities look at his bluetooth history and might ask all the listed people to quarantine. However, the biggest challenge with these apps is that most of the population has to use them in order for them to be effective. Secondly, in some cases, apps may also fail to record encounters between iPhones and Android devices. Since bluetooth signals travel through barriers but the virus doesn’t, it may also gather irrelevant info by registering a contact even if people were separated by walls or were on different floors of a building. Nevertheless, countries that are using this methodology include Singapore, Australia, Malaysia and United Kingdom.

2. Apps that use location data: These ones gather a time-wise record of where you have been. This wouldn’t help in knowing who were next to, but exactly where you were at a certain point in time. If someone visiting the same area is found to be positive, a relevant record of all people who have been there around the same time can be pulled up for scrutiny. Not only is this method a threat to privacy, but GPS info also tends to be inexact in a crowded location. Ghana, Iceland, India, Israel, Norway and US are some of the countries who have rolled out apps that use this methodology.

3. Apps that use Apple and Google’s bluetooth approach: While strongly condemning the use of location apps, the two tech giants recently revealed that they would build special software to make bluetooth apps work better. As a first step, an API has been released that developers can integrate in their existing apps, and later this year, the same approach will be inbuilt for iOS and Android software updates. This would eventually mean that bluetooth contact tracing will be possible without having to download an app. However, the solution provided so far will not work in India until the country’s official contact tracking app is updated not to collect user’s personal information.

It is also important to know that some countries have taken the process of tracing beyond mobile apps by setting up surveillance cameras. Such techniques have been used in China and Israel, though none of them is without controversy. Hopefully, we will find the right trade-off between savings lives and sacrificing privacy!

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