The current pandemic is one of those scenarios that can test the core values of a society. By most accounts, coronavirus is an edge case, the exception to the rule. And, yet, it’s forcing many to rethink how they operate in the world, how they treat others, and the rules they are willing (or not) to follow. The recent public response to government-led contact tracing is a good example.

1. Location tracking and data privacy

In general, people do not like to be tracked. The right to privacy is considered a fundamental human right in many parts of the world. Legislation like GDPR and the CCPA is designed to enforce that belief, defining how private data should be captured, processed, shared, and stored. With so much legislation surrounding data privacy now in place, these existing guidelines and protections should be adequate to navigate the current global health crisis.

Tracking the number of coronavirus cases, regions impacted, and other macro trends is essential to understanding the spread of the disease. Macro trends can inform how the disease is propagating and also how effective certain measures are at containing the spread.

Some form of personal location tracking has been widely accepted as an effective method of understanding the spread of the disease. However, it should only be implemented as opt-in, allowing individuals to choose when to share their personal information and whereabouts. Providing people with a choice, along with details on how their data is being managed and shared (details that are required by GDPR) should be standard practice.

Transparency in data collection methods (assumptions, gaps in data, etc.) is necessary so world experts can accurately utilize the data that is made available. Anonymization is key when sharing data, but being able to correlate cases also means that local entities need to selectively share data.

2. Bluetooth technology for contact tracing

In some countries, applications for tracing the virus are being developed with official government support. Privacy concerns have been raised on tracking the geographical location of app users, with people claiming the initiative is an excuse to advance government surveillance. For that reason, the favored approach utilizes Bluetooth technology, which can track users’ proximity to one another but not associate location data with an individual.

Several frameworks for building contact-tracing apps have been developed. Apple and Google have joined forces to support a Bluetooth-based method to track the spread of infections without compromising location privacy. This involves the addition of new features to their mobile operating systems that enable certain apps that are approved by government health agencies to use Bluetooth in order to record proximity between phones, and therefore, the people carrying them.

In general, these government-approved apps work by allowing a user to report a positive Covid-19 diagnosis in the app anonymously. Then any users who have been in close proximity within a certain period of time will receive a notification. The system is reportedly Bluetooth-only, collects no GPS-based location data from users, and is fully opt-in.

The technology works by constantly broadcasting unique, rotating Bluetooth codes that are derived from a cryptographic key that changes once each day. It constantly monitors mobile devices nearby, recording the codes of any other phones they encounter.

When a user reports a positive Covid-19 diagnosis, their app uploads the cryptographic keys that were used to generate their codes over the last two weeks to a server. Every app then downloads those daily keys and looks for a match with one of its stored codes, the app will notify that person that they may have been exposed.

Read more about how the technology works here on WIRED.

3. Potential issues with the use of Bluetooth for contact tracing

The problem with Bluetooth is it’s very draining on a device’s resources. These apps need to be running constantly in the background and constantly monitoring their surroundings in order to function properly which means the unavoidable result will be faster device battery drain.

Modern mobile operating systems prevent battery drain using various techniques to “throttle” apps that are not in use, such as reducing access to system resources. If, how much, and in what way depends on the OS version and the settings on the device.

For example, we understand that newer versions of operating systems are more aggressive in reducing Bluetooth background activity to conserve power. Android devices sometimes use additional system applications referred to as ‘battery optimizers,’ which can further restrict Bluetooth background activity.

Battery level also plays a role because many devices could (and usually would) automatically switch to low battery mode, which deactivates background processes. This could potentially reduce the efficacy of the contact-tracing apps, which need to be constantly running in the background.

If you have decided to opt into your government’s official contact-tracing app, follow these steps to increase app efficacy:

  • Keep the battery charged, avoid using various battery optimizers (or if so, create an exception for your application). Carry a portable charger.
  • If you’re an iPhone user, avoid using low battery mode on your device as this can prevent the app from running in the background.
  • Do not use two or more similar tracking apps at the same time because there could be a conflict in the usage of resources (Bluetooth access).

Developers of government-approved applications are working with both Apple and Google to get deeper access to device resources and thus be able to keep fully operating even in various stand-by and low-energy modes while the application is running in the background.

4. Finding the government-approved contact-tracing app in my country

The government-approved app in each country is different, and not all countries offer one, so you should go directly to official government sources to find more information. It is crucial to avoid any apps found on unofficial sites or third-party app stores. Approved apps should only be downloaded from the official app stores. Cybercriminals are very active during this COVID-19 crisis, and they try to exploit the high demand for tracking applications. A widespread tactic is to repack an existing application, modify it with malicious code, and publish it on an unofficial store. It is always better to check the website of your local government to find information about solutions for approved contact-tracing applications.