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Researchers say smartphone location tracking can fight COVID-19

Researchers at MIT have developed a smartphone location-tracking app that they say could help stop the spread of COVID-19. The Private Kit app allows coronavirus patients to rely on their phones instead of their memories when doctors ask them where they have been and who they might have exposed.

People who download the Private Kit app can get alerts if they have potentially been exposed to a known victim of COVID-19, but they cannot learn who that person was; doctors can redact all personal information from a patient's history in the app.

The project was led by Ramesh Raskar, formerly of Facebook and Google X, who is now an MIT associate professor focusing on artificial intelligence. The MIT team worked with advisers from the World Health Organization and the Mayo Clinic on the project.

The app is available now, but the developers say its functionality is currently limited by "the availability of published data," and they added that they are working with municipalities to collect more data.

The success of this approach of course relies on extensive COVID-19 testing, and on community participation – people need to download the app. In Singapore, where the government tested people aggressively and promoted the TraceTogether app, only 4 COVID-19 deaths have been reported, and the infection rate is roughly 180 people per million, versus 650 in the United States. China and South Korea also used location-tracking technology to fight the spread of the virus.

Further, location-tracking apps can use Bluetooth to detect the phones of people near the user. According to researchers at Oxford University, an app that "builds a memory of proximity contacts" has the potential to not only slow the spread of the virus, but also to mitigate the economic impact of business shutdowns by giving communities more information about where the virus has been spreading.

Legal experts say this type of data collection may test the limits of privacy laws. Jena Valdetero, a data security lawyer with international law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, told Light Reading in a statement that lawmakers and others will need to carefully craft their approach to the issue "to ensure such government tracking doesn't become the new normal once the pandemic recedes."

Indeed, the White House has already reportedly had discussions with the likes of Facebook and Google over whether smartphone location data could be used to stem the spread of COVID-19.

In the European Union, privacy laws might threaten the use of location tracking apps, but individual countries may find ways to circumvent those laws in the name of public safety. For example, Germany is reportedly preparing to launch a smartphone app to track the virus within a few weeks.

— Martha DeGrasse, special to Light Reading. Follow her@mardegrasse

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