Evolution of Digital Tracking
1996-2000s: GSM Triangulation (Global System for Mobile Communications) is a method by which the location of a radio transmitter can be determined by measuring either the radial distance, or the direction of the received signal from two or three different points for locating a regular mobile phone. Before GPS, this was used to find location of a user.
2006-2010s: The GPS (Global Positioning System) is a radio-navigation system formed from a group of satellites and ground stations. It was initially designed for military use and controlled by the US Department of Defense, but now civilian users are able to use the system without any restrictions. For smartphone users, GPS helps in finding stolen/lost devices and assists in map navigation while travelling.
2015- 2020s: A new tracking technology called bluetooth mesh tracking was launched by startups like Tile, Trackr and Stick-n-find to help smartphone users keep a track of important items like a briefcase or home keys by using bluetooth. This mechanism uses a node that has the newest information about the whereabouts of the user’s belongings. So the strongest signal would be closest to the location of the user’s car keys.
Then with the onset of COVID-19, a need to keep track of coronavirus cases on an accurate, minute by minute basis started and contract tracing applications like India’s Aarogya Setu and Mexico’s CovidRadar were launched by the authorities globally.
Covid Contact Tracing Apps By Various Countries
The MIT Technology Review has launched a database to track 25 significant automated contact-tracing systems around the world. These are mapping apps that can track the movements of infected people, ones that can be used to monitor people in domestic quarantine, and smart city tracing systems that allow health authorities investigators to track the mobility of confirmed infected people by using surveillance cameras and credit card transactions.
South Korean way: Private-public partnership for digital monitoring
When the government in different parts of the world made data on COVID-19 patients freely available on their respective public portals, developers from the private sector immediately used them to program smartphone apps with their skills and expertise.
Europen way: New standard sought for data protection
Relying on voluntary use, the Europeans want to record the proximity and duration of contact between people for a limited period of time and remain completely anonymous without location detection. Over 30 organizations currently seek to comply with German and European data protection laws, like Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PPEP-PT) that conforms to EU data protection regulations and can be used beyond national borders.
Chinese way: Maintain quarantine decorum
China’s tracking mechanisms are being used by the local police to detect those breaking quarantine rules. Hosted by their largest tech companies: Alibaba Group, Tencent Holdings, and Baidu Inc., their apps gather a wide range of specifications like the identity of citizens, real time locations, and online payment records.
Volunteers’ way: Non-profit projects
A volunteer team consisting of researchers and developers created ‘How We Feel’ application that enables the users to check in daily and report any new information regarding the COVID-19 in their vicinity, without the need for signup and only linked to the area zip-code.
Calling Devices Or Spy Devices?
A group of researchers from Northeastern University’s Cybersecurity department installed general apps that weren’t designed to need a location tracking feature like a flashlight or contact app.
However even when GPS is turned off by the user, inbuilt phone sensors are always activated including an accelerometer, that tracks how fast a phone is moving, a magnetometer, that works like a digital compass, and a gyroscope, that tracks rotation.
Thus the survey found that it was able to track those test subjects using just phone sensors, which points to such companies having access to the users’ location without their permission.
So How To Track Users Without Violating Their Privacy?
When authorities recognize flattening of the curve of infection, reopening parts of society is a necessary step to revive the economy and in turn people’s daily lives. For Covid-19, a quick mechanism needed to be designed at the peak of the pandemic. However, in times ahead, the “test and trace” schemes can be implemented in a way that gives the desired output data while respecting user’s privacy.
Along with Coronavirus response plan, measures like social distancing, wide-scale testing, and isolating sick individuals, digital tracking app would be a part of the new normal if the users’ trust is established in them. Since no software is built in a day, other companies can build their own version of surveillance prototypes and keep it optional for the users to download and use or can form a group of dedicated beta testers.