Apple, Google, and OSU developing technology to trace COVID-19 cases on your smartphone

Apple, Google, and OSU developing technology to trace COVID-19 cases on your smartphone

STRONGSVILLE/COLUMBUS, Ohio (WOIO) - COVID-19 has changed life as we know it, and now researchers are working to develop technology that will notify you on your cell phone if you’ve come close to someone who has coronavirus.

If you have an iPhone or an Android you already have a piece of this technology in your phone, and you likely didn’t even know it. If you have an iPhone, hit settings, privacy and then health. You will find something that says COVID exposure logging, but it only works if you download an app to collect that data.

“They basically created this platform that’s available on most phones for other applications to do more sophisticated contact tracing, so the default it doesn’t really do anything until you put an application on top of it,” said Paul Sems, a cyber security expert with Trusted Sec in Strongsville.

“The applications are gonna be released either on a state-by-state basis or they’re gonna be region by region,” Sems said. “They’re gonna create these applications and then if you do test positive for it you’ll be able to use that information and they say hey you happened to be sitting next to someone who tested positive and you sat with them and it’ll tell the date and how long you were in the approximate proximity to that person.”

Right now, an application like this has not been created for Ohio, but other states and countries already have one. The apps use your phone’s Bluetooth to track exposure. Sems says it is a good idea in theory, but it won’t work unless a lot of people use it. Many people are also concerned about their privacy.

“From a technical perspective it’s pretty safe and it allows you to opt in for those things,” explained Sems. “The challenge comes so I want to give any information to anyone, and majority of Americans are probably reluctant to do that.”

Ohio State University is also creating contact tracing technology. The way it works is if you test positive for COVID-19 your phone would make a sound that can only be heard by other phones, and if you are within 6 feet of that person your phone’s microphone would pick it up and alert you. Professor Ness Shroff is part of the team working on this.

“Your status would change from green to red which means that you should probably get yourself tested or take some measure to ensure that you don’t have COVID,” said Ness Shroff, Professor of computer science and engineering at Ohio State University.

For this technology to work effectively, a lot of people need to use it.

“There are reports that you need at least 50-60% (of the population),” said Zhiqiang Lin, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Ohio State University. “You need a large amount of users to adopt this to make it really effective.”

Ohio State is hoping to launch their contact tracing technology on campus this fall. They would start with student volunteers. If it works successfully, they plan to share it with the rest of the state.

Professor Shroff wants to make it clear that this technology would not be a replacement for social distancing, it is something that will help fight the virus on top of the things we are already doing.

“I think it’s very clear that unless we have a significant penetration of the technology it’s certainly not gonna be secure, even if the technology were to work 100% well,” Shroff said. “So, I think it should be made very very clear upfront that unless a very large fraction of the population starts to adopt it this cannot be the end all.”

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