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Why Mobile Tracking Apps Are Vital to COVID-19 Monitoring

By: Ernest Sampera on May 20, 2020

As COVID-19 has swept across the world, every country has taken a different approach to manage the pandemic. Some of these strategies have been more effective than others, but many of them have involved some form of mobile tracking apps. These smartphone applications have been deployed in a variety of ways and all of them come with their own set of concerns or limitations. They have demonstrated, however, that mobile technology will continue to be an important tool in the fight against COVID-19.

What are Mobile Tracking Apps?

The near-ubiquity of smartphones across the developed world has allowed many countries and organizations to experiment with mobile tracking apps capable of notifying users of when they may have come into contact with someone infected by COVID-19. While there are a variety of technologies within smartphones that could be deployed to this end, most plans involve using Bluetooth connectivity and GPS location data.

The basic function of a contact tracing application is to help people know when they’ve come into close contact with coronavirus (or help health officials track them). Many countries have already various forms of mobile tracking app technology to contain the spread of COVID-19. While China, Australia, and India have all implemented some form of smartphone contact tracing, South Korea has served as a case study for how technology could be used to manage coronavirus at scale. The US and Germany are currently working with Google and Apple to implement mobile tracking apps that utilize Bluetooth connectivity.

Naturally, there are serious privacy concerns surrounding all of these solutions. Companies and governments already use smartphones to gather tremendous amounts of data on user behavior and there is justifiable concern about how contact tracing data may be used in the future.

4 Mobile Tracking App Uses During the Coronavirus Outbreak

Bluetooth Tracking

In the US, the most promising mobile tracking app is the proposal put forth by Google and Apple that would utilize Bluetooth technology to provide information to users without excessively infringing upon their privacy. Bluetooth transmits radio waves to connect to wireless devices within close range of a smartphone. Every Bluetooth-enabled device can transmit a unique signal that could be recorded by other devices to indicate when they came into contact with them.

The Google/Apple app would send out a randomly generated identifier signal that changes frequently for privacy purposes. Each time another smartphone receives this identifier signal, it stores the data in a library. When a person learns that they’re infected, they can indicate this on their mobile tracking app, which will then broadcast a notification to all devices logged in the smartphone’s library. These users would receive a notification that they’ve been in contact within the last 14 days with someone who is infected and provide them with recommendations for what to do next.

While there are still some privacy concerns with this approach, the basic idea is to provide information to individual users rather than government authorities.

GPS Tracking

India’s mobile tracking app technology, known as Aarogya Setu, uses GPS data to allow people to see if there are infected people in their vicinity. Designed and implemented by the Indian government, the app reached 50 million downloads within two weeks of its release and has almost 100 million users as of early May. Part of the reason for its massive adoption, however, is the fact that the government has effectively made the app mandatory by issuing fines and penalties to people who refuse to download it. Since India has no national data privacy law, there are serious concerns about how the government may use this data in the future. More importantly, however, the app also presents serious security concerns. By using GPS spoofing, hackers could easily use the app to pinpoint the exact location of people who report as infected.

QR Code Tracking

China’s mobile tracking apps utilized a Quick Response (QR) code system to track people’s movements and gain greater visibility into infection rates. The system generated a health QR code on individual smartphones that were then scanned by readers located at the entrance to residences, workplaces, and other public areas. If the code was green, the person was cleared to proceed, but if it was amber or red, they were unable to enter. An amber code required people to enter quarantine for seven days, while red mandated 14 days of government or self-quarantine. Codes were issued by government authorities based on information provided by citizens, allowing the government to constantly monitor and manage people exhibiting symptoms. The system was relatively easy to implement due to the high level of surveillance already in place throughout the country, but obviously drew severe criticism from privacy advocates.

Comprehensive Tracking

As one of the world’s best-connected countries with sophisticated smart city technology, South Korea implemented an ambitious mobile tracking system that used a combination of self-reporting, GPS tracking, credit card transactions, and surveillance camera data to create a comprehensive picture of who was infected, where they had been, and who they came into contact with. The data allowed public health officials to issue real-time alerts about new cases and ensure that positive cases were isolated. Combined with one of the world’s most aggressive testing campaigns, South Korea has been quite successful in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. There are serious privacy concerns about this approach, however, and has led to the stigmatization of many patients. People who violate government guidelines have also been forced to wear tracking bracelets to ensure their compliance with the tracking program, a practice that has been followed in a few other countries.

Implementing COVID-19 Mobile Tracking Apps

Rolling out any type of contact tracing system using mobile tracking apps requires robust digital infrastructure capable of securely managing large volumes of data. Data centers will play a critical role in this infrastructure, providing the edge computing capabilities to extend network reach with low-latency connectivity. With direct on-ramps to leading cloud platforms, data centers can also make these solutions scalable and flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. With strong security controls in place, privacy can also be protected while also delivering services that further public health objectives.

While there are still privacy and technical issues to be resolved, mobile tracking apps will unquestionably be an important part of the eventual solution to the COVID-19 pandemic. Contact tracing has played a key role in every region that has found ways to manage the problem, and there are now several models that could potentially be implemented in other countries still struggling to keep the coronavirus in check.

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