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May 21, 2020updated 26 May 2020 12:02pm

With the contact tracing app delayed, could mobility tracing come to the rescue?

By Ellen Daniel

The release of a Covid-19 contact tracing app in the UK has faced another setback, with the news that it will not be ready until June, later than the original launch date of mid-May.

Contact tracing apps could be an effective way of tackling the further spread of coronavirus, according to science journal Nature, but only if enough of the population participates. On the Isle of White, where the UK’s app is currently being trialled, just 40% of residents have downloaded it, with many people concerned about privacy and security.

Cybersecurity professionals Vanessa Teague and Dr Chris Culnane have published a report outlining a number of flaws in the app, saying that they were “not convinced that the perceived benefits of centralised tracing outweigh its risks”.

They identified several issues within the app, including the risk that hackers could steal encryption keys, the fact that unencrypted data is stored on handsets and concerns over “how privacy and utility are being balanced”.

According to Computer Weekly, concerns have also been raised related to the app’s registration process, as well as whether it may be possible to identify people using the data generated by the app.

With a number of issues raised about the contact tracing app, some have asked whether other solutions could offer an effective way of easing lockdown safely and effectively, while maintaining privacy standards.

Mobility tracing: An alternative to the contact tracing app?

Dr Carlos Pinheiro, principal data scientist at SAS believes that mobility tracing could be a viable alternative. Mobility tracing uses anonymised GPS-based mobility data compiled by telecommunication companies, rather than individuals’ devices. Population movement patterns can be analysed alongside patterns in how the virus is spreading, which can then be used to assess how effective social distancing measures have been as well as informing future policy.

NHSX’s contact tracing app relies on enough individuals downloading the app, and then accurately reporting when they develop Covid-19 symptoms. but mobility tracing could bypass that.

“While contact tracing has been mooted as a potential strategy to ease lockdown measures, mobility behaviour analysis could be the key,” said Pinheiro.

“This is because the NHS’s contact tracing app is highly dependent on two factors. First, people need to opt-in by downloading and using the app. Secondly, users have to upload their test results and symptoms accurately, which is no guarantee of accurate data.

“Mobility behaviour analysis represents a good alternative, or an additional solution. Using location network analytics, with aggregated data provided by telecommunication companies (no individual information), the in and out flows of people between locations are analysed over time and correlated to the spread of the virus. This allows accurate identification of the major pathways of the spread and the locations playing a key role in disseminating the virus. Key locations highlighted by the location network analytics act as bridges, gatekeepers and hubs, flowing people in and out across geographic locations (and also the virus).”

“Marrying widespread testing and technology is key to easing the UK out of lockdown”

Facebook and Google have made their mobility data available to researchers and the general public. Apple has also released mobility trend data from Apple Maps.

Pinheiro believes that mobility tracing could be key to easing lockdown.

“The outcomes from the mobility behaviour analysis can be used to help local authorities accurately define social distancing policies, like continuing to take shelter or even reopening. For example, a previous deployment in a Nordic country highlighted that a very small number of key locations control the flow of people – and eventually the spread of the virus – yet they affect around 75% of the entire country,” he said.

“Mobility analysis could be used by the UK Government and central health authorities to ease specific locations in and out of lockdown, while maintaining a handle on the crucial ‘R0’, the average number of people that one infected person can expect to pass the coronavirus on to. Marrying widespread testing and technology is key to easing the UK out of lockdown safely and progressively.”

Read more: Covid-19 contact-tracing app risks excluding those without smartphone access.

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