How smartphones can track COVID-19 in Canada
Traditional tech giant enemies Apple and Google have teamed up to develop apps for both iOS and Android phones to track the spread of COVID-19, the Coronavirus. When you have the app installed on your smartphone, it will be able to warn you if you’ve been near someone with the virus in recent days.
Sounds a bit creepy perhaps? Both Apple and Google are going to great lengths to assure people their privacy is protected. For instance, you will be notified on your phone where you were near to someone with the virus but you won’t get a name or any other information about them, nor is yours shared. As well, only government health authorities can connect their data to this system and none of the data is allowed to be used for commercial purposes. Both Google and Apple will ensure that the apps can’t share any data with other apps.
This known as contact tracing and is a very key part to figuring out where an outbreak may have started and where it might go. Health authorities across Canada already do this, but it is difficult to communicate with the public directly. But so many of us carry smartphones today that it makes it very easy to use apps and location data for contact tracing and reporting.
Alberta has already built a contract tracing and notification system, but it only works on iOS (Apple) right now and has to be turned on and active, so it’s a start but isn’t great. Other provinces are working with Apple and Google and developing the apps, but it may be a few months before they are launched. As a precautionary note, do not download apps that say they do virus tracking and will warn you; those are fake and can lead to identity theft and your phone being hacked. Since Google has poor cybersecurity controls on their apps, if you own an Android phone, you’re at greater risk.
How a notification might look:
So how does it work? Basically, the apps work with your Bluetooth service on your phone, which if you have wireless earphones, you’re already using. Bluetooth only has a short range of about 10 to 12 metres. When you are out somewhere shopping, the app will detect other phones nearby that have the app and they will talk to each other. The data is sent back to a main database at Apple or Google and the local health authority and it is cross-referenced with data they have. If the system detects you’ve been near someone with COVID19, it will send you a notification of when and where you came into contact with someone with the virus. You can then decide to self-isolate or go get tested.
In the meantime, provinces and the federal government are working on the privacy laws and how health authorities will use these apps. We will keep you informed.
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Author: Giles Crouch is a digital anthropologist and Group Publisher at Optimyz’ brand parent HUM@Nmedia. He writes prolifically on the intersection of humans and technology and occasionally contributes to Optimyz and Silver magazines.