Can this app save lives?

Mon, 27. Apr. 2020

Do you usually have your mobile phone with you? This could play a role in interrupting the chains of infection of the coronavirus. Corresponding software is in the works. Is this the beginning of permanent surveillance?

Many of us release data to companies relatively unscrupulously when we install apps on our mobile phones. This is usually done voluntarily in exchange for free software or services. It is often unclear how the data will be used – and then suddenly becomes visible in pop-up advertising banners and unexpected messages on the mobile phone. It is therefore understandable that there is a certain scepticism towards app providers.

But it is precisely the voluntary release of data – notably on a gigantic scale – that is to be used in a few days to combat the further spread of the corona virus. The project is called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing, or PEPP-PT for short. On this software platform, states and companies can develop their own programmes that exclusively serve the aforementioned goal. These apps are designed to break chains of infection without violating privacy. For experts, this app is one piece of the puzzle to loosen isolation measures more quickly.

Internationally functional
If the app is set on active on the smartphone, the Bluetooth technology and an anonymous identification number track and store other active mobile phones in the vicinity. Thus, longer contacts with coronavirus-infected people can be traced once they have registered accordingly. The app can also trigger an anonymous warning.

In order to meet the requirements, these apps should also work for future trips across national borders. Especially for cross-border commuters, the software must function as simply as possible. It is therefore a long-term project that could also be used for future risks. The costs are still unclear today, but financing is planned via donations in order to remain independent of states.

Many must participate
The development team consists of more than 130 experts from eight countries. The ETH Lausanne is one of the members. The Zurich-based company Ubique, for example, is about to deliver a corresponding app based on this platform. However, the exact date is not yet clear. The Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) is also reluctant to make recommendations and wants to test the reliability first. Patrick Mathys of the FOPH said that these apps could be a building block in the fight against viruses, "but they certainly won’t solve all problems".

Of course, this type of warning system only works if a considerable number of people participate. Experts are talking about up to 60 percent of the population having to participate for it to be successful. In addition, many people do not have a smartphone, especially in the age group currently at risk. For these people, one possibility is to develop special Bluetooth wristbands.

No real-time data
Data protectionists were quick to voice their concerns. Under the conditions that the data is stored anonymously and that the software does not use GPS data with the locations of the mobile phone owners, the objections have become smaller. The criticism of establishing such a surveillance state is quieter in Switzerland than elsewhere. In countries like China, South Korea or Israel, however, this cannot be denied. In Poland, such an app has been declared obligatory for people who have tested positive in order to monitor the quarantine. This is explicitly excluded with PEPP-PT. Even the competing IT giants Apple and Google want to integrate anonymous contact tracking systems into their mobile operating systems iOS and Android with users being able to choose whether they want to activate this function.

The fact is that today, as with many aspects of Covid-19, nobody can say whether these apps will serve their purpose. Theory and practice often look very different. But such projects also show how quickly new approaches to solutions can be found and developed together in crises.

Based on AvS/Hans Rudolf Schneider

 

www.pepp-pt.org


How does a PEPP-PT app work?

A contact of at least 15 minutes with a proximity of at least two metres. These are the two parameters apps work with on the PEPP-PT platform. When the app is active, it anonymously registers contacts that meet these critera, which allow the coronavirus to be transmitted. The strength of the Bluetooth radio signal is used to measure the distance between the mobile phones and thus between people. If one of these mobile phone owners later registers as infected with the coronavirus – which must be confirmed by a specialist – messages are sent to all the mobile phone contacts anonymously registered in the previous three weeks. These messages state that you have had contact with a person who tested positive and that you should discuss further steps such as quarantine with your GP, for example. This is intended to interrupt the chain of further spread of the virus and reduce the number of infections.

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As I am writing this the noise from the icefield and tennis area should be entering my office.

At this time of year, the beach volleyball tournament should be in full swing. People in flip-flops and with flags to cheer on their team should be milling about in the Promenade.