South Korea and Singapore are taking a smart city approach to halting the spread of the coronavirus. Both countries have been using contact tracing to identify people who have been exposed to the virus as well as all the people who had interacted with an infected individual. This process is manual and time-intensive.

To speed up this process in South Korea, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport used the country’s Smart City Data Hub. The ministry has been building the tool in collaboration with the Ministry of Science and ICT since 2018.

Previously, the National Policy Agency had to request contact information from several agencies in order to get in touch with an individual with a suspected case of coronavirus. By running these requests through the Smart City Data Hub, the request for information and the response are processed in one place. Also, a person’s movements can be tracked on a map that is part of the hub. The government said the hub will be used for this tracking only during the crisis response phase.

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David Heyman, founder and CEO of Smart City Works, said contact tracing is the bread and butter of public health when it comes to controlling infectious disease.

“Finding those who you have been in close contact with who is contagious is the key to stemming the spread of disease,” he said.

Contact tracing is particularly difficult with COVID-19 because of the exponential growth in new cases, the fact that people without symptoms can be infected, and the two-week delay between acquiring the virus and getting sick. Using location-based technologies could help governments track down people who have been infected.

“Using smart city location-based technologies—used every day in hailing ride services, tracing our running routes, and keeping track of our kids or friends—may provide a solution,” he said.

In Singapore, the Government Technology Agency of Singapore launched TraceTogether on March 20 in collaboration with the Ministry of Health.

The TraceTogether app uses short-distance Bluetooth signals to connect one phone using the app with another user who is close by. It stores detailed records on a user’s phone for 21 days but does not include location data. Residents are not required to use the app and more than 500,000 people downloaded it after the launch. Authorities have said they will decrypt the data if there is a public health risk related to an individual’s movements. The data is not automatically shared with the government and is deleted after 21 days.

Location tracking, coronavirus and privacy

China used a similar method to track a person’s health status and to control movement in cities with high numbers of coronavirus cases. Individuals had to use the app and share their status to be able to access public transportation.

Researchers at the University of Oxford proposed a similar app that could turn the manual process of contact tracing into a digital one. An entrepreneur in El Salvador has built a similar app for Android phones and is looking for government support to expand development.

A Senate bill to address the coronavirus in the US included money for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for tracking the spread of the virus. The bill passed Wednesday night allotted $500 million for tracking and analytics.

The unique challenge in the US to an app-based approach to contact tracing is protecting people’s privacy. Heyman said more and more people are resisting governments and big data companies tracking personal data from Edward Snowden to Europe’s “right to be forgotten” rule.

“The concern with tracking everyone’s locations and who they have been near and whether they are sick, is not the question of whether this might be beneficial, but rather what else might the government do with this data?” he said. “Could it be used to deny employment, services, insurance, or other vital items? Will it be made public to embarrass, stigmatize, or ostracize individuals or groups?”

The challenge is to balance the public good of protecting human health in the short term with diminished personal privacy and a stronger surveillance state by the government.
Heyman said that the keys to addressing privacy concerns about high-tech surveillance by the state is anonymizing the data and giving individuals as much control over their own data as possible.

“Personal details that may reveal your identity such as a user’s name should not be collected or should be encrypted with access to be granted for only specific health purposes, and data should be deleted after its specific use is no longer needed,” he said.

Smart City Works is a next-generation business accelerator that can move early-stage ventures to commercialization quickly, help speed products to market, and reduce investor risk. The organization is currently working on smart city deployments to ease the impact of social distancing due to the coronavirus through technologies that support seniors, students, and the public health community.

Protecting personal health information

Any tracking system that monitors personal health information in the US would have to follow HIPAA requirements which dictate how this information can be collected and used.

Kevin Lancaster, general manager of security solutions at Kaseya, said that CDC leaders would have to make sure HIPAA protections are in place before turning over protected health information to app developers or other tech companies.

“Many external tech companies are very good at securely storing large amounts of data at low cost and providing big data tools to healthcare providers to leverage these scalable technologies,” he said. “However, healthcare executives should be careful to use due care and vet all solutions before turning over any protected health information to these third-party providers and subsequently exposing patient data to risk.”

The Ministry of Health in Singapore has built an app that uses Bluetooth so that everyone use the app can track who they have come in contact with, including people who have contracted the coronavirus.
Image: Ministry of Health Singapore