Tracking coronavirus via bluetooth

03 March 2020

Interview with 

Dr Ramsey Farragher, Focal Point Positioning

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While antibiotics work against bacteria, they don’t affect viruses like the new coronavirus, which is steadily spreading around the world. At the moment many countries are adopting a “containment” strategy, where they identify cases and then track down the people they’ve been in contact with to isolate them and stop the spread. But finding out where people have been, and therefore whom they could have infected, is very labour intensive and slow. But computer scientist Ramsey Farragher, from the company Focal Point Positioning, thinks there might be a very quick, simple and extremely cheap way to do this using technology that we already have literally at our fingertips or in our pockets, and he spoke to Chris Smith...

Ramsey - Well, Chris, as you said, it's a very labour intensive process at the moment. When people are announced to have the virus, they're basically asked to write down on a piece of paper all the people they've interacted with for the last two weeks, which is crazy, that we're still doing this in 2020 when our smartphones in our pockets are a brilliant way of storing, gathering, and quickly using all of that information in a much more reliable way than we can do ourselves.

Chris - How does your smartphone know whom you have been rubbing up against though?

Ramsey - So there's a few ways you could use your smartphone solve this problem. The one I'd propose is the Bluetooth connection. One of the radios in our phones is Bluetooth. It's very short range. It's a very low power and for most phones it's on all the time. We use it to use wireless headphones, wireless mice, and to exchange contact details with other people's phones. But it's an aura around our phones all the time. So my phone right now knows that your phone is within the same room as me, because they're talking to each other over Bluetooth. What I would propose is we could store this data in our phones, and if I was infected with COVID-19 we could just ask my phone to give me instantly the list of all of the other phones I've been in contact with for the last two weeks.

Chris - That presupposes though that my phone, when it tells your phone via Bluetooth that it's my phone, that you know who my phone is, and you can come find me.

Ramsey - A system like what I'm proposing would involve the unique IDs of each phone being shared and then encrypted on the device. It wouldn't be the case that you would need to give me your data. It's a simple unique identifier that the phones always share with each other.

Chris - But if you need at the end of the day to identify that you have been in contact with me to have exposed me to this virus let's say, you do ultimately need to know, I've got my phone on me and there are two problems, aren't there? One is that you have to know that I own that phone, so you've got to know how to find me and, you're assuming that I've got the phone, it wasn't that Katie Haylor stole Chris's phone and was on the bus with it and it was actually Katie who's got the contact, not Chris.

Ramsey - Sure. That's certainly a potential issue if people are sharing devices, but I would suspect that you use your phone much more often than Katie does. So the risk of false positives is probably lower than you remembering if you'd met me in the last two weeks.

Chris - How practical is this to implement and how much of a difference could it make if we were to do this?

Ramsey - It's trivial to implement. It's possibly the case that many of the apps in our phones are already doing similar things already. I wouldn't be surprised if social networking apps were already doing this as part of how they work. Every time you use LinkedIn or Facebook, it tries to recommend to you another new friend. It is a mixture of online networks and physical networks that they're using to determine whether you've just met me, and if you should be recommended as a new contact to me.

Chris - Have you put this to anybody who could be in a position to implement this?

Ramsey - I have not, but maybe we should Chris.

Chris - Yeah, well I'm thinking you should. I just wondered what sort of a reaction you get, do people worry about the fact that all of a sudden, this could be regarded as another means of cyber surveillance or are people generally supportive? They could see the merit in this because you could potentially know exactly who you've been in contact with and to do contact tracing in situations like this.

Ramsey - I have no doubt that something like this could save a lot of lives if it was implemented. There are issues of it being misused, but that's the case with anything like this. As long as it's used for the reasons it's being put in place for, then it's used in the right way.

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