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Privacy-Enhanced Contact Tracing App in the Works

Phone, coffee, book


20 Nov. 2020. A mobile app for Covid-19 contact tracing, designed to protect the user’s personal privacy, is being developed by two university engineering labs. The app called Covid Detector is the work of collaboration between engineers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts and Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, funded by a one-year $120,000 grant from National Science Foundation.

Contact tracing is a critical tool for public health officials to identify and notify people in close contact with other people who test positive for Covid-19 viruses. Much of the process today is manual, done by telephone calls to people in recent close contact with other individuals with Covid-19 infections. Once notified, those close contacts are encouraged to self-isolate for 14 days, monitor symptoms, and get tested if symptoms develop.

Smartphone apps have also been designed to aid in contact tracing, but those apps often require sharing personal data stored on the phone, a limiting factor in the U.S. and other countries with strict privacy laws. A team led by electrical and computer engineering professors Patrick Schaumont at Worcester Tech and Yaling Yang at Virginia Tech is developing Covid Detector to meet public health needs for Covid-19 contact tracing while still preserving the user’s personal privacy.

The researchers are using an technique called homomorphic encryption to protect the users’ personal privacy while tracking the person’s locations. Homomorphic encryption further scrambles already-encrypted data, removing the need for access to a secret key for decryption. The technique requires cloud computing to decrypt and process the second-level scrambled data, returning encrypted response data for authorized users.

For Covid Detector, the app collects, re-encrypts, and transmits location data minus personal identifying information to a public health cloud server, where those location data are compared against locations of people known to be infected. When the system finds individuals in close contact with Covid-19 infected people, the system returns an alert to the user. The app employs a combination of GPS, WiFi, and Bluetooth technologies to determine location and close encounters with infected individuals.

Covid Detector is expected to operate on smartphones as a background process, without intervention by the user. “As long as you have your mobile phone with you,” says Schaumont in a Worcester Tech statement, “it can keep track of your whereabouts and who you have been in contact with. The apps, for instance, can note that we both were in the library at the same time or that we passed each other in the hallway.”

NSF awarded funds for the project in May, from its Rapid Response Research program that provides up to $200,000 for projects of up to one year to support technologies for fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. Schaumont’s group performed the initial design for Covid Detector, while Yang and colleagues created and are testing a prototype app. Schaumont’s team now plans a survey on attitudes toward and concerns about digital contact tracing.

The researchers expect to release the app as open-source software. “We hope that our effort will not only help with the current pandemic,” notes Yang, “but also will make our society better prepared to combat future infectious diseases.”

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