Governments around the world have turned to data-driven technology in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The most prominently discussed technology so far has been contact tracing applications, but these apps are just the tip of the iceberg of pandemic-related technology.
Wearables, from smart rings to anklets, are being developed and adopted across the globe, alongside computer vision software with the ability to measure the distance between individuals in public spaces. While we have seen an accelerated uptake in technological solutions, some of these tools are enterprise-driven or experimental and have not yet been integrated into policy and practice. These technologies have the potential to be used in a variety of combinations and with varying efficacy across jurisdictions.
However, the increased use of data-driven technologies and heightened surveillance during the pandemic period has led to significant discussion surrounding the trade-off between public health tracking and an individual’s privacy rights. This scan aims to provide an overview of how technology and data is currently being deployed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, both within Canada and around the world. In doing so, we hope to provide policymakers with a resource outlining how technology is being used in various jurisdictions and contexts. This scan will provide a starting point for discussions and analysis related to existing or required changes in privacy and data policy and legislation.
Contact Tracing and Exposure Notification Apps
Contract tracing applications are perhaps the most prominent tool being used to combat the spread of COVID-19. Contact tracing is a process that works by identifying and informing individuals who have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for the disease. Contact tracing has been used by public health authorities in past outbreaks such as SARS and the avian influenza. This process has historically been done manually and there are a few early examples of digitally enabled contact tracing. These early examples include the use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) to aid contact tracing during the SARS outbreak. However, mobile contact tracing using smart-phones is a novel and untested approach. A few resources on contact tracing apps have emerged, such as the MIT Technology Review Covid Tracing Tracker and Ryerson’s CyberSecurity Policy Exchange Race to Trace report. Below we provide a brief overview of some recent developments:
- Australia: COVIDSafe App relies on Bluetooth to recognize other nearby devices that have also downloaded the app. When two phones come in close proximity to one another, the app notes the date, time, distance, and duration of the contact and the other user’s reference code. This information is stored securely on the users phone, and deleted on a 21-day rolling cycle. Prior to the release of the app, parliament passed the Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information) Act to support the COVIDSafe app and ensure users’ privacy is protected.
- Canada: The federal government launched a COVID Alert exposure notification app in early August. While available for download country-wide, it is only currently active in Ontario. The app uses Bluetooth to identify phones in close proximity to one another for an extended period of time. When two phones meet the time and proximity thresholds, the app generates and shares an anonymous unique identification code which is then stored on both phones for a 14-day period. If a user tests positive with COVID-19, public health officials will help to upload the information to the app. The app will then notify any phones that have a shared identification code.
- Quebec: In early July, the province launched online consultations to gauge public interest in a contact tracing app
- Cyprus: One of the earliest contract tracing apps to launch in February, CovTracer is a GPS-based contract tracing app that records the user’s location history. Once a user records they have tested positive in the app, they can choose to become anonymous while still sharing the geo-locations of their past movements on the database. All information is stored on the user’s phone and is deleted when the app is uninstalled.
- Germany: Like many other Bluetooth-enabled apps, Germany’s CoronaWarning app identifies other users in close proximity and shares a unique identifier. Data is stored on the individual’s device and deleted after a two-week period. When individuals test positive for COVID-19, they will receive an individualized QR code to scan, which will then signal the app to transmit notifications to those who have come into close contact. To build trust in the app, the developers released the source code prior to its launch.
- France: On June 2, 2020, the country’s StopCovid app was made available for download on Apple and Android devices. Since June 23, the app has been downloaded by 1.9 million people, but only 68 users have reported testing positive for COVID-19 in the app. The app doesn’t require you to register your name or address. Users can disable the app and delete their data by uninstalling the app.
- Iceland: Launched in April, Rakning-C app logs the user’s location data and compares it against the movements of others when infection is reported. Unless released to authorities for tracing purposes, the data collected is stored only on the user’s device. It’s been reported that 40 percent of Iceland’s population has used the app.
- Singapore: The country’s Trace Together app, launched in June, was the first Bluetooth-enabled contract tracing app. All data is stored locally on the users device and is deleted after 21 days.
- United Arab Emirates: Like many other Bluetooth-enabled applications, the country’s Trace Covid app will exchange and store secure tracing identifiers on phones that come into close proximity to one another. Individuals can be fined up to AED 10,000 ($3,700) for not downloading the COVID-19 tracing app after being infected with the coronavirus.
Physical Distancing Tools
While contract tracing tools have been widely adopted by various governments around the world, physical distancing tools have only been used by a handful of public authorities. These tools are also being developed and used by private companies to assist with physical distancing among workers as employers reopen.
- Australia: A social distancing squad will use 11,000 cameras to monitor physical distancing in Sydney’s busiest transit hubs.
- Belgium: The port of Antwerp—a key economic hub—is using wristbands to enforce social distancing rules on the workfloor, requiring a specific minimum distance between any two workers. The wearables, supplied by the Dutch company Rombit, use Bluetooth and ultra-wideband technology to give off warning signals when workers come within a specified distance of each other.
- Canada: Start-up iMerciv has launched a beta version of its pedestrian navigation app, MapinHood, for use in Toronto. MapinHood’s social distancing mode draws on historic pedestrian foot traffic data to advise users on which streets to use and avoid in order to navigate busy areas and maintain physical distancing. The app also warns of COVID-related risks and has a built-in voluntary survey tools to track local infections.
- China: The country uses AI-powered surveillance cameras, drone-borne cameras, and portable digital recorders to monitor and restrict the gathering of people in public.
- Oman: The Royal Oman Police uses drones to spread messages telling people to avoid public spaces and gatherings—and to stay home.
- Singapore: The government’s National Parks Board uses a fleet of 30 drones to monitor parks and beaches, measuring how crowded certain locations are, and aggregating the data on a website. Additionally, robotic dogs equipped with cameras, remote control, 3D-mapping, and semi-autonomous operations have been deployed to bark orders to park-goers to maintain distancing measures.
- The New Albany, Ohio school district plans to implement a system that would require each student to wear an electronic beacon to track their location to within a few feet, logging which students and teachers are in each classroom throughout the day.
- Amazon recently deployed clear plastic-sleeve shaped gadgets that give off warning signals when workers violate the distancing mandate at fulfilment centres.
- Silicon Valley’s Landing AI has developed a new software that can be integrated with existing on-site CCTV to flag groups that are closer than the minimum physical distancing requirements.