Physical tokens for COVID-19 contact tracing

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Experts, customers, policymakers and entrepreneurs gathered for an EIT Health discussion exploring the use of physical tokens for COVID-19 contact tracing.

By Stéphanie Price

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, digital technology was used to help fight the crisis, with countries around the world deploying several smartphone contact tracing apps to monitor the spread of the virus.

However, the use of mobile apps for contact tracing has raised several concerns, including privacy, the complexity of performing contact tracing on apps, the issue of interoperability, and the issue of centralized or decentralized approach. Additionally, smartphone-based systems are controlled by a very small minority of private companies, raising concerns about sovereignty.

Decentralized physical tokens

Physical tokens are currently used in a number of areas, such as logistics and product tracking. Tokens can come in the form of a small USB-like device, for example, which is linked to anonymized data on a decentralized digital database. Using this type of token for COVID-19 contact tracing may offer users a higher degree of privacy than smartphone-based systems, as no personally identifiable information is contained on the token.

Speaking at the EIT Health event, Professor Willem Jonker, CEO of EIT Digital, said: “When the COVID-19 pandemic started, we immediately saw in Asia that digital technology was called upon to fight. against the pandemic. A variant of tracing apps have been deployed to help combat the virus, specifically to help trace and track how the virus was spreading in the population.

“Because things were moving at such a high speed, manual tracking and tracing was not enough to keep things under control. It also became evident that the situation in Europe was quite different from the situation in Asia. In Europe, it has become clear that any solution should focus on ensuring user privacy, which has sparked a debate on what type of technology and protocols to use. We have seen initiatives in Europe that were poorly coordinated, and many attempts to create contact tracing applications have been made with varying degrees of success. None of the European apps have become a flagship success story of how to do it.

“If you look at the logistics, there’s a lot of tracking and traceability – what technology is used? Tokens that are attached to the object that can then track and trace them. This technology has much more potential in the future than just tracking the virus, so it is important for Europe to develop this technology itself – Europe needs to make sure it can have its own position.

“We have developed a comprehensive system and called on parties to develop token-based solutions for contact tracing.”

Preservation of user privacy

Speaking at the event, Professor Bart Preneel, professor of cryptology at KU Leuven, key contributor to the Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (DP-3T) protocol which was created in response to COVID-19, and architect of the Belgian contact tracing app, pointed out that decentralized solutions ensure strong privacy for users and large-scale deployment – encouraging adoption by the public.

The principle behind the DP-3T protocol is identity-based encryption that reveals a key only for a particular time interval. If a location is identified as high risk based on the device, codes are stored with encryption so that it is not possible to identify where a user has been, but they can be notified if they were to. risk.

Praneel noted that a number of apps in Asia have published the whereabouts of infected users anonymously, but it has become possible to de-anonymize the data.

“Cell phone surveillance can be used to detect when people are leaving their homes and can be very intrusive,” he said. “Efforts were made to deploy proximity tracing and the protocol that succeeded was fully transparent, open and protects confidentiality.

“There have been a number of examples of data collection abuse during the pandemic – for example, in the UK, police have had access to test and trace data and in Australia, espionage were collecting data from the COVID-19 application. The most publicized case in Europe is that of Norway, which modeled its application on those used in Korea, Singapore and Israel, using geolocation technologies. He had to close the app because it violated privacy.

Preneel wanted to complement manual contact tracing – creating an application with data minimization without a central database and without GPS, and which protected identities in a ‘privacy by design’ model, including the ‘right to forgetting ”. He stressed that another goal was to create a system that would be easy to disappear and not linger beyond the pandemic. “We have to be careful not to end up in a society where everyone is tracked all the time,” he said, noting that proximity tracing protocols should be precise, secure, scalable, transparent, voluntary. and quick to deploy.

“Rather than having a centralized system, decentralized databases store random data on infected people but won’t tell you who it was. They send out a random signal that helps identify who you were close to without needing more information – data from a central system is much more sensitive.

To date, there have been over 100 million downloads in the European region of applications based on DP-3T, which are able to share data across borders, warning users of an infection even if they are they are not in their country of origin. “This is a major success, although the ecosystem is not perfect, given the time constraints and complexities in helping authorities to integrate this with health infrastructure and legal aspects.”

Reopening company

These physical tokens can be used by businesses and large-scale events to help reopen the company by replacing manual tracking systems. To facilitate this, EIT Health brought in European entrepreneurial teams in the Nordic countries, Benelux, Italy, UK and Hungary, who are developing token-based tracking systems that have been tested on construction sites. buildings, stadiums, schools and offices, as an alternative to struggling smartphone apps.

Speaking at the event, Tamas Kadar, CEO of Sziget Festival, said: “Due to the pandemic, all large-scale festivals and events have been closed. If you go back in time, we have never used contact tracing in this sense, but in most cases we have introduced a system whereby before entering the site we have a verification system where we identify the people who come in and we connect this data to a bracelet that they use as a ticket. It is also used for cashless payments on the spot.

“Adding a contact tracing device to this bracelet will allow us to track down the people and people they contact during the festival.”

Javier Murillo Ricote, Senior Project Manager, Ferrovial, said: “Token systems can replace pen and paper tracking systems used by businesses. approach work. If someone is infected, half of the site will be infected within a few weeks. “

Dave Hurhangee, CEO of UK token C-Spyder, which is building a website that will capture pandemic information, said: “At the heart of the technology is a global cellular modem built into every unit that is completely anonymous, if you test positive, it is transmitted via a modem – not via a mobile. It can keep the information in the country of transmission, or if the countries join together, can be centralized.

“It records core body temperature and other vital signs, adding more value to the data being tracked – knowing you’ve interacted with someone who has a fever is helpful. It’s not just for COVID-19 but for any viral infection.

Hurhangee highlighted the advantages of this technology beyond contact tracing in the context of the pandemic: “Our token had to be more than just a token, so it has both man-down and human-down detection. drop to help lone workers, and wellness features to help assimilation. It is also reusable and incorporates green technologies and materials.

The token has been tested with Ferrovial with nearly 100,000 employees worldwide. “The use case is quite important – giving people the confidence to return to work and having a social distancing function – we think it will be necessary in the long run,” added Hurhangee.

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