Not surprisingly, much of those efforts are centered in China, ground zero for the COVID-19 outbreak. COVID-19 is the official name of the disease caused by the virus called 2019-nCoV. The abbreviation nCoV stands for novel coronavirus.
The hundreds of millions of people now quarantined in China rely on their phones for contact with the outside world. And those who are still moving around in cities are using their smartphones to negotiate the country's hyper-vigilant public service network.
Chinese media reports that people in some Chinese cities cannot use public transportation without first using their phones to identify themselves so that authorities will have a record of their movements if they later become infected. Already, Chinese railway authorities can find and report the names of people who rode near a passenger who later came down with COVID-19.
Further, people who want to avoid quarantine can send a text message to their carrier and get back a list of the cities and provinces they've been in during the past two weeks. In some cases, this can serve as proof that a person's likelihood of exposure is relatively low.
People in China can also use popular mobile apps like WeChat, Alipay and QQ to access a state-run platform called Close Contact Detector. The user inputs their name and national ID number, and gets back information about whether they have had close contact with someone suspected of having the virus. The Close Contact Detector software is pulling much of its data from public transportation records, because many forms of public transportation require ticket buyers to give their names.
The role of wireless technology is not limited to the Chinese. For example, data mined from mobile network operators have helped researchers predict where the most recent coronavirus outbreak will show up next, on a global scale.
Researchers at RTI International, a nonprofit research institution, identified mobile phones in a past study whose users had tweeted at least twice from Wuhan, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak. Then they tracked the movements of those phones, hoping that the trips made several years ago during the study would be indicative of travel patterns the phone owners are still following.
They were. According to the researchers, 74% of the new coronavirus cases reported outside of China in January occurred less than 15 kilometers from a location visited by one or more of the people who had tweeted from Wuhan during the time of the study (2013-2015). In the US, Los Angeles, Seattle and Tucson all reported cases of the new virus, and all of those cities were destinations for people who tweeted from Wuhan during the time of the study.
Based on the data, the researchers said COVID-19 could be expected to show up in the UK (it has), Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. They also singled out Barbados, Pakistan and Turkey as countries that should be on high alert.
So far, there have been few reports of privacy concerns raised in connection with this study. The researchers are not publicizing the names of the people whose phones were in their study, and it is not clear whether that data was even captured.
— Martha DeGrasse, special to Light Reading. Follow her @mardegrasse