Coronavirus: how does contact tracking work and is my data secure?

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Millions of people in the UK will soon be asked to follow their movements to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

The government is deploying 18,000 people to trace the contacts of those infected, and the general public will also be invited to get involved.

So how does contact tracking work, should you participate – and what happens to your data?

What is contact tracking?

Contact tracing is a method used to slow the spread of infectious epidemics. It is commonly used in sexual health clinics, when infected patients are asked to contact anyone they have been intimate with.

In the coronavirus pandemic, this means tracking down anyone with whom people have been in prolonged contact, possibly asking them to isolate themselves.

This is often done by phone calls to friends and family of people with coronavirus, supplemented by a mobile automatic location app.

Contact tracking is already widely used by various countries affected by the coronavirus, including Hong Kong, Singapore and Germany.

The UK plans to deploy its contact finder and phone team by mid-May, hoping that weeks of social distancing will have helped keep track of new epidemics.

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Media captionWATCH: What is contact tracking and how does it work?

What will contact tracking in the UK look like?

The 18,000-strong team will include approximately 3,000 government officials and health workers and 15,000 call managers. They will interview patients with coronaviruses about their recent movements, and then contact anyone with whom they have had prolonged contact.

This telephone system will be used in tandem with a tracking application, available for download on a smartphone in the coming weeks.

Using Bluetooth, the free app monitors when users come into contact with each other, automating the laborious contact tracing process. If a user develops symptoms of coronavirus, it is their responsibility to let the application inform the NHS.

Their disclosure may trigger an anonymous alert for users with whom they have recently had significant contact, potentially asking these people again to quarantine or be tested.

For those without a smartphone, an alternative could be a Bluetooth enabled bracelet, like those used in other countries to detect lock violations.

Will they help end the lockdown?

Contact tracing has been recognized to have helped lift restrictions in other countries, when combined with other measures.

South Korea has never locked out thanks to an early strategy of extensive tracing, combined with mass testing.

The nation not only asked citizens to remember their movements, but also used credit card transactions, video surveillance footage and cell phone tracking to reconstruct their whereabouts. After a daily peak of 900 cases, he now only diagnoses a handful of new daily cases.

If adopted widely enough, tracking contacts could help loosen UK restrictions, although citizens are unlikely to be tracked to this extent.

The British government first tried to find contacts at the start of the epidemic, before there were too many cases for it to be effective.

However, fewer movements during locking means that new outbreaks should now be easier to follow.

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Legend

Contact search apps are already in use in Singapore


Phone tracing can be very time and labor intensive, with tracers in Ireland reporting making around 40 phone calls per infected person.

The mobile application is simpler, but its adoption will have to be colossal for the virus to be completely removed. Academics advising the NHS estimate that 80% of smartphone users – 60% of the population – should actively use it.

In comparison, around 67% of smartphone users in the UK have downloaded the WhatsApp messaging app.

People should also be honest about posting any potential symptoms and inform the NHS.

What can government do with my data?

Not everyone is happy that government and third parties have access to people’s data. Civil rights group Liberty said the government must take the risks seriously and should not make the installation of the app a condition for leaving the lockdown or returning to work.

“Millions of us are going to need to trust the app and follow the advice it provides,” said NHSX, the digital development arm of healthcare. It indicates that the information collected will only be used for health and research purposes, and that the application can be deleted at any time.

The UK application will use a centralized model, which means that the matching process will take place on a computer server.

An alternative and decentralized model has been proposed by Apple and Google, where the exchange occurs on people’s handsets.

Tech giants say their version makes it more difficult for hackers or authorities to use computer server logs to track and identify specific individuals.

But the NHSX says its centralized system will allow it to better understand how the disease spreads and help it make the application more efficient.

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