MIT develops privacy-protected COVID-19 patient close contact tracking system

One of the efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 is the Contact Tracing and Tracking Program, which will enable health officials to better grasp infected individuals and alert them to potential transmission. The tracking system appears to have been successful in some parts of the world to curb the spread of coronaviruses, but privacy advocates have strong reservations about any such system being implemented in the United States.

In the U.S., MIT researchers have devised a new method that can provide automated tracking of contacts, which can use Bluetooth signals from each individual’s mobile device to bind contacts to random numbers that have no connection to an individual’s identity.

The system works by having each mobile device constantly send random strings of numbers, which are sent via Bluetooth, which is always Bluetooth on most people’s devices, and is a short-range radio communication protocol that ensures that anyone receiving a signal comes from someone with a closer connection with the user.

If anyone tests positive for COVID-19, they can upload a complete list that includes the number strings that their phones have played over the last 14 days, which goes into a database of digital strings associated with confirmed positive cases, and others can scan to see if their phones have received these strings during that time. A positive match indicates that an individual may be at risk because someone has been infected with the virus up to 40 feet from them in the last 14 days, so they should be tested, or at least self-isolated for two weeks.

MIT’s system completely avoids many of the most difficult privacy-related issues surrounding contact tracking, using no geographic information at all, nor any diagnostic information or other information associated with a particular individual.

The system will work through an app installed on a phone, inspired by Apple’s “Find My” system, which is used to locate lost Mac and iOS hardware, and to record the location of devices owned by loved ones.

MIT develops privacy-protected COVID-19 patient close contact tracking system