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Technology Behind Most Secure COVID-19 Tracing App

COVID-19 Tracing App

Everyone was clear. The only way to tackle pandemic was the sufficient use of technology. COVID-19 contact tracing apps is the best example of the use of technology in the pandemic.

Many countries have launched their own version of the contact tracing apps to keep citizens safe from coronavirus. However, in a short spell of time, many contact tracing apps have gained criticism over its poor user data collection and sharing practice.

In countries like the USA and Canada where the federal government has imposed many strict laws to ensure the privacy of data stored, used and shared electronically, launching such COVID-19 contact tracing apps with many loopholes can never be possible.

Hence, the Canadian government has re-engineered the COVID-19 contact tracing app and made it the most secure contact tracing app. They have named it COVID Alert or the exposure notification app as it works on Google & Apple’s exposure notification system!

The working of contact tracing app vs exposure notification app

The major task of both types of contact tracing apps is to notify the user if he is in close contact with any COVID-19 positive patient in the last 14 days.

However, the way both of these apps complete this task matters a lot. Their different working mechanisms make them different from each other. Their working mechanism also makes contact tracing apps less secure and exposure notification apps more secure.

How does contact tracing app work? – Less Secure!

  • To use the contact tracing app, users should meet prerequisites – their phone’s GPS, the internet and Bluetooth should be turned on.
  • As users move along with their phones, the app tracks their movement.
  • The app keeps a record of all contact tracing app users who are detected nearby by Bluetooth.
  • The app also uses a GPS log of all places that the phone has been.
  • If a user tests positive for coronavirus, the GPS and Bluetooth data collected by its phone in the last 14 days are matched with other users’ data to identify the close contacts and notify them.
tracing app work

How does Canada’s exposure notification app (COVID Alert) work? – More Secure!

Canada’s exposure notification app has been dedicatedly developed for contact tracing while securing users’ personal data. To achieve the highest level of data privacy, it does not even use the GPS of the users’ phone. It only uses the Bluetooth data of the users’ phones in a very secure way.

  • By using Bluetooth, the app shares random codes with all nearby devices.
  • The app also determines how far away other users are based on the Bluetooth signal strength.
  • COVID-19 positive user receives a one-time-key from the authority. Upon entering this key into the app, the app notifies the other users who came in close contact with the COVID-19 positive user in the last 14 days.
COVID Alert

The app was launched last week. However, it is only available in Ontario as of now according to the government’s plan to not roll it out in the entire Canada in a single shot. The government has also clarified that they are in discussion with authorities of other provinces but cannot reveal the exact date of app launch in other provinces other than Ontario.

Who has developed the secure COVID-19 tracing app – COVID Alert?

Health Canada – a department of the Canada federal government which is responsible for federal health policy – has developed the COVID Alert app with the help of BlackBerry and Shopify. The app has been developed on Google and Apple’s private exposure notification framework. 

Google and Apple’s private exposure notification framework

To address the privacy concerns of the conventional contact tracing app, Google and Apple tied up and developed an exposure notification system to actualize secure contact tracing. Using this system or framework, a mobile app development company can develop a secure contact tracing app that shares ‘code or unique ID’ with each other rather than real information.

Here is how this technology works:

  • As soon as the user installs the app developed on the exposure notification system, the system generates a random ID for the phone. This random ID keeps changing every 10-20 minutes to make sure that no one can steal it and use it to identify the user and his location.
  • In the background, a user’s phone shares this random ID with other users’ phones using Bluetooth.
  • Each user’s phone repeatedly checks for all random IDs associated with COVID-19 infected users.
  • If the app finds the match, it alerts the user and assists him further to get rapid help from the local health authority.
how this technology works

Security features which make exposure notification framework secure:

  •  It allows users to turn on or turn off the notifications.
  • The system does not work on GPS. It uses Bluetooth technology which is useful to only detect the two nearby devices. It does not reveal the location.
  • Google, Apple and even public health authorities cannot see users’ identities.
  • Google and Apple have only granted access to the exposure notification system to public health authorities.

India’s COVID-19 tracing app – Arogya Setu app

Arogya Setu is the Indian version of COVID-19 contact tracing app. It is open-source and available both on Google PlayStore and Apple App Store. The app was developed by the National Informatics Center under the ministry of information and technology.

Within the 40 days of the launch, the app has been downloaded for more than 100 million times. However, the privacy and security concern of the Arogya Setu app grew and thus, the government made it open-source.

Arogya Setu app was designed and developed with an aim to keep the track of app users and with whom they make close contact with. If later a user’s close contact tastes positive for COVID-19, the user gets alerted.

Features of the Arogya Setu app:

Below are listed the features of Arogya Setu app

  • User Status
  • Self Assess
  • COVID-19 Updates
  • E-Pass Integration
Arogya Setu app

How do some countries tackle the privacy issues of contact tracing uniquely?

Singapore has found a very interesting way to tackle the privacy issues of the contact tracing app. They have launched wearable devices that aren’t equipped with GPS, internet or cellular connectivity. Meaning, the collected data can only be accessed when it is physically handed over to health authorities.

They have decided to provide such secure wearable devices after their first developed contact tracing app -TraceTogether- didn’t go well. Additionally, many iOS app users reported that the app drains a significant amount of battery. 

COVID-19 contact tracing apps – criticized over privacy concern   

CountryApp NamePlay Store LinkApp Store Link
AustraliaCOVIDSafeKnow More or DownloadKnow More or Download
SingaporeTrace TogetherKnow More or DownloadKnow More or Download
UtahHealthy TogetherKnow More or DownloadKnow More or Download
IndiaArogya SetuKnow More or DownloadKnow More or Download
IsraelHaMagenKnow More or DownloadKnow More or Download
BahrainBeWare BahrainKnow More or DownloadKnow More or Download

Final Words:

Countries are getting impressive help from COVID-19 contact tracing app to identify the evolving COVID-19 clusters. It also helps individuals to know the possibility of getting COVID-19 infection. However, app developers have given the cold shoulder to privacy while in a race to develop the app earlier than others. Data privacy is the deciding factor.

If the app does not follow the best practices to store, use and share data, the users cannot put trust on the app. To avoid such a scenario, Google and Apple – world’s top competitors – tied up and introduced a secure platform to develop contact tracing apps.  This partnership itself depicts the urgency for combined efforts to combat pandemic and to combat privacy issues, at the same time.