Who’ve you been with? Mobile technology helps to fight Covid-19 virus

Singapore TraceTogether.jpg

Digital technology that was unavailable just two decades ago is helping millions around the world to keep on working – and it’s also helping health and public authorities to fight the spread of coronavirus.

There are several clear ways in which it is helping, though those worried about individual rights and privacy are concerned about some of the trials.

“The GSMA and its members are doing everything they can to help the global fight against Covid-19,” said Mats Granryd, the mobile industry organisation’s director general.

“We will work with the European Commission, national regulators and international organisations around the world to explore viable mobile big data and AI solutions to fight this pandemic while adhering to principles of privacy and ethics.”

Among the solutions proposed by the industry is the use of technology to help health authorities pass warning messages to the public. At the top of my Twitter feed for the past few days has been a message saying: “Coronavirus: Latest news and updates.”

And, of course, technology – such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Skype – is allowing people suddenly working from home to keep in touch with colleagues, clients and customers, so long as the broadband holds up. The Capacity events team is using similar techniques to run webinars for delegates and sponsors.

1.5 million downloads

It is helping epidemiologists and others track the progress of the disease and forecast its spread. In the UK, two major hospitals, Guy’s and St Thomas’, and King’s College London, have recruited 1.5 million people in the past few days to download an app to their smartphones that allows them to track the progress of the disease. They are working with Zoe Global, a health science company which has until now specialised in nutrition.

Download the app and it asks some basic data, such as age, smoking history and sex at birth – but not whether you’re pregnant, which blocks one line of future research from the start: are pregnant women differently affected by Covid-19? Remember Zika, the infection spread mainly by mosquitoes that, when caught by pregnant women, caused severe deformities in their unborn babies.

The Zoe Covid symptom tracker asks people to note their symptoms daily via their phones. At first the app did not prompt users to report every day – if they forgot, or perhaps get ill and have other things to worry about, there was no reminder. However, that has now been added via a screen alert. 

The government of Singapore last week unveiled an app called TraceTogether, which “uses Bluetooth to identify who you have been with rather than where you have been”. A week ago Singapore had 509 confirmed cases of the virus. Using TraceTogether, the Ministry of Health “identified over 8,000 close contacts who have been quarantined”, says the government.

There is a strong feeling among some academics that a person’s mobile contacts on social networks might offer a proxy for their physical contacts. In other words, people you send Instagram, Snapchat, WeChat, WhatsApp and other messages to might be people you encounter in the real world, and thus might be a good model for your closest friends and relatives.

“It’s better than just assuming people just meet uniformly in society,” said Till Hoffmann, a post-doctoral mathematician at Imperial College London, who is working on modelling dynamic networks in a joint project with the Department of Mathematics at Oxford University. [Declaration of interest: Hoffmann is my son-in-law.]

“Is it possible to use mobile data to detect any changes in behaviour because of the lockdown?” he asks. “We’re looking for statistics about how people mix in general. The speed of infection depends on the density of networks and behaviour, and it’s possible we might be able to extract this from mobile phone data. It should be possible to estimate the density from the number of people connected to each tower.”

Tracking movement of Ebola victims

There’s real-life evidence of this. Six years ago, during the Ebola crisis in west Africa, researchers used mobile phone data to offer a view of population movements. The Technology Review from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reports that a “model of West African regional transportation patterns was built using, among other sources, mobile-phone data for Senegal, released by the mobile carrier Orange. The model created using the data is not meant to lead to travel restrictions, but rather to offer clues about where to focus preventive measures and health care.”

Caroline Buckee, associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), and her team were behind this project, which used cell phone pings from towers, to show where people had gone after leaving a disease hotspot – and to help suggest where a cluster of infection might crop up next.

Over the past eight years, she and her colleagues have also used millions of mobile phone records to track and analyse the spread of dengue fever, malaria and rubella, thus helping public health officials take action to slow their progress.

But technology is also being used in ways that are seen by critics as more sinister – especially if they continue in use after the Covid-19 pandemic is over.

Moscow started a partial lockdown of its 12.7 million citizens on Monday of this week. The mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, says: “For all residents of Moscow, regardless of age, a self-isolation regime is introduced.” According to reports that are unconfirmed so far, residents wanting to move around the city will have to download a QR code to their phones, which they must show to police on demand. The clear possibility is that people with permission to move will be trackable as they carry their phones with them.

Whose face can you identify?

Perhaps more worrying to some, facial recognition technology is helping authorities in some countries identify who is breaking curfews by going out of the house during lockdowns.

Facial recognition has made an uncontroversial appearance at airport passport gates – if you remember what they are – and as a way of signing into smartphones. Much of the technology, one expert told me in 2018, was originally developed by white male engineers in Silicon Valley, and therefore was less than effective in identifying people of colour.

However, that has no doubt been remedied by recent developments in China, where the potential of facial recognition technology for automated surveillance has led many people to express concern.

And in the US also: Microsoft is one company that has had second thoughts, having had a minority investment in Israel-based facial recognition company AnyVision. Stung by accusations that the Israeli authorities were using AnyVision technology to identify people attempting to cross from Palestine, Microsoft decided to divest its shareholding, which was owned through its M12 Ventures unit.

Even though a legal study decided the accusations were wrong, Microsoft said: “The audit process reinforced the challenges of being a minority investor in a company that sells sensitive technology.”

The company added: “By making a global change to its investment policies to end minority investments in companies that sell facial recognition technology, Microsoft’s focus has shifted to commercial relationships that afford Microsoft greater oversight and control over the use of sensitive technologies.”

Ramez Younan, CEO of PCCW Solutions, a sister company in Hong Kong of PCCW Global, noted that, at this time of the virus, masks are another block to facial recognition.

“There are few Chinese vendors who are able to recognise people with masks on,” he told me a few days ago. There are “a couple we know who have more advanced solutions – particularly for tracking people when they are in motion instead of standing still in front of a camera – eg, walking in a public area.”

He noted: “This technology is also used to ensure people abide by rules about not going out and about when there’s a curfew or the like.”

However, Younan and his colleagues at PCCW Solutions are looking further ahead to the post-viral world, where the “citizen will be the owner of the data”, that will allow people “to prove their travel history”, so that they can gain access to embassies, immigration departments or airlines.

“Blockchain can support the decentralised environment where multiple parties will have to input data and the nature of [the] untampered platform [will] ensure the data is not modified, so it will be ideal for tracking people,” said Younan, a former Oracle executive: until 2009 he was group vice president of its global communications business unit.

“This platform can also include facial recognition to combine the capture of voluntary and involuntary recognition,” he added. “We are still at early stages but I think this would be very helpful to airport, airlines, immigration, medical and health authorities” to help combat pandemics such as we are experiencing now. “I don’t think this will disappear anytime soon,” said Younan.