Caused by coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, the COVID-19 disease spreads particularly through direct contact between people. Health authorities face the challenge of identifying and isolating infection chains to prevent the pandemic from spreading further. This task usually involves manual effort and relies on the contact information that is voluntarily provided by infected people and is often incomplete or inaccurate. Hence, infection chains have to be reconstructed by the authorities with an enormous amount of work for each case and yet are not always accurate or complete.
Mobile Apps for Contact Tracing
Using advanced digital tracing apps on mobile devices can help reduce manual effort and significantly increase tracing accuracy. This has already been successfully demonstrated in Asia (e.g. Singapore, China, Korea). Tracking technologies used in these solutions collect highly sensitive data from individuals. However, data protection and privacy regulations, especially with regard to medical data, vary from country to country and are often more restrictive than in Asian countries. Hence in Europe and US scientists and technologists are investing effort in similar approaches that can provide an appropriate level of privacy.
Competing Solutions with Differing Properties
During 2020, a number of competing solutions for performing digital contact tracing emerged. Depending on local requirements and goal settings, these solutions follow different approaches for identifying possible contacts between app users and notifying at-risk contacts. Consequently, also their properties with regards to the level of security and privacy they provide to the users of the app. You can find a comparison of the most prominent approaches along these factors here.
Tracing Apps are Only Part of the COVID-19 Solution
Based on many discussions with fellow researchers in China, USA, Spain and Germany, we concluded that what is required is a comprehensive ecosystem of services to address the questions and problems of people affected with the COVID-19 pandemic. These services can not only be used to help people cope with the situation, but also to gather useful information about the dynamics of the pandemic and its societal effects in a privacy-preserving manner.
A tracing app can provide users with the initial warning that a contact with an infected person has taken place. However, this is only the starting point to a process in which users need rapid and reliable information and personal advice about their situation and what they should and should not do to prevent a further spread of the disease. This requires the possibility, e.g., to be able to talk with doctors or hospitals in a secure and privacy-preserving manner, and, to obtain up-to-date and trustworthy information about the pandemic situation in general.
To support these needs, we propose the TraceCORONA platform encompassing a full suite of digital services built around a privacy-preserving digital contact tracing app. Please read more about the platform here.
Prof. Dr.-Ing. Ahmad-Reza Sadeghi
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