Schlagwort-Archive: covid

How Apple and Google Are Enabling Covid-19 Contact-Tracing

Source: https://www.wired.com/story/apple-google-bluetooth-contact-tracing-covid-19/

The tech giants have teamed up to use a Bluetooth-based framework to keep track of the spread of infections without compromising location privacy.
a man walking in the street in boston
The companies chose to skirt privacy pitfalls and implement a system that collects no location data.Photograph: Craig F. Walker/Boston Globe/Getty Images

Since Covid-19 began its spread across the world, technologists have proposed using so-called contact-tracing apps to track infections via smartphones. Now, Google and Apple are teaming up to give contact-tracers the ingredients to make that system possible—while in theory still preserving the privacy of those who use it.

On Friday, the two companies announced a rare joint project to create the groundwork for Bluetooth-based contact-tracing apps that can work across both iOS and Android phones. In mid-May, they plan to release an application programming interface that apps from public health organizations can tap into. The API will let those apps use a phone’s Bluetooth radios—which have a range of about 30 feet—to keep track of whether a smartphone’s owner has come into contact with someone who later turns out to have been infected with Covid-19. Once alerted, that user can then self-isolate or get tested themselves.

Crucially, Google and Apple say the system won’t involve tracking user locations or even collecting any identifying data that would be stored on a server. „This is a very unprecedented situation for the world,“ said one of the joint project’s spokespeople in a phone call with WIRED. „As platform companies we’ve both been thinking hard about what we can do to help get people back to normal life and back to work effectively. We think in bringing the two platforms together we can solve digital contact tracing at scale in partnership with public health authorities and do it in a privacy-preserving way.“

Unlike Apple, which has complete control over its software and hardware and can push system-wide changes with relative ease, Google faces a fragmented Android ecosystem. The company will still make the framework available to all devices running Android 6.0 or higher by delivering the update through Google Play Services, which does not require hardware partners to sign off.

Several projects, including ones led by developers at MIT, Stanford, and the governments of Singapore and Germany, have already proposed, and in some cases implemented, similar Bluetooth-based contact-tracing systems. Google and Apple declined to say which specific groups or government agencies they’ve been working with. But they argue that by building operating-level functions those applications can tap into, the apps will be far more effective and energy efficient. Most importantly, they’ll be interoperable between the two dominant smartphone platforms.

In the version of the system set to roll out next month, the operating-system-level Bluetooth tracing would allow users to opt in to a Bluetooth-based proximity-detection scheme when they download a contact-tracing app. Their phone would then constantly ping out Bluetooth signals to others nearby while also listening for communications from nearby phones.

If two phones spend more than a few minutes within range of one another, they would each record contact with the other phone, exchanging unique, rotating identifier “beacon” numbers that are based on keys stored on each device. Public heath app developers would be able to „tune“ both the proximity and the amount of time necessary to qualify as a contact based on current information about how Covid-19 spreads.

If a user is later diagnosed with Covid-19, they would alert their app with a tap. The app would then upload their last two weeks of keys to a server, which would then generate their recent “beacon” numbers and send them out to other phones in the system. If someone else’s phone finds that one of these beacon numbers matches one stored on their phone, they would be notified that they’ve been in contact with a potentially infected person and given information about how to help prevent further spread.

graph with illustrations of phones and humans
Courtesy of Google
graph with illustrations of phones and humans
Courtesy of Google

The advantage of that system, in terms of privacy, is that it doesn’t depend on collecting location data. „People’s identities aren’t tied to any contact events,“ said Cristina White, a Stanford computer scientist who described a very similar Bluetooth-based contact tracing project known as Covid-Watch to WIRED last week. „What the app uploads instead of any identifying information is just this random number that the two phones would be able to track down later but that nobody else would, because it’s stored locally on their phones.“

Until now, however, Bluetooth-based schemes like the one White described suffered from how Apple limits access to Bluetooth when apps run in the background of iOS, a privacy and power-saving safeguard. It will lift that restriction specifically for contact-tracing apps. And Apple and Google say that the protocol they’re releasing will be designed to use minimal power to save phones‘ battery lives. „This thing has to run 24-7, so it has to really only sip the battery life,“ said one of the project’s spokespeople.

In a second iteration of the system rolling out in June, Apple and Google say they’ll allow users to enable Bluetooth-based contact-tracing even without an app installed, building the system into the operating systems themselves. This would be opt-in as well. But while the phones would exchange „beacon“ numbers via Bluetooth, users would still need to download a contact-tracing app to either declare themselves as Covid-19 positive or to learn if someone they’ve come into contact with was diagnosed.

Google and Apple’s Bluetooth-based system has some significant privacy advantages over GPS-based location-tracking systems that have been proposed by other researchers including at MIT, the University of Toronto, McGill, and Harvard. Since those systems collect location data, they would require complex cryptographic systems to avoid collecting information about users‘ movements that could potentially expose highly personal information, from political dissent to extramarital affairs.

With Google and Apple’s announcement, it’s clear that the companies chose to skirt those privacy pitfalls and implement a system that collects no location data. „It looks like we won,“ says Stanford’s White, whose Covid-Watch project, part of a consortium of projects using a Bluetooth-based system, had advocated for the Bluetooth-only approach. „It’s clear from the API that it was influenced by our work. It’s following the exact suggestions from our engineers about how implement it.“

Sticking to Bluetooth alone doesn’t guarantee the system won’t violate users’ privacy, White notes. Although Google and Apple say they’ll only upload anonymous identifiers from users’ phones, a server could nonetheless identify Covid-19 users in other ways, such as based on their IP address. The organization running a given app still needs to act responsibly. “Exactly what they’re proposing for the backend still isn’t clear, and that’s really important,” White says. “We need to keep advocating to make sure this is done properly and the server isn’t collecting information it shouldn’t.”

Even with Bluetooth tracing, the app still faces some practical challenges. First, it would need significant adoption and broad willingness to share Covid-19 infection information to work. And it will also require a safeguard that only allows users to declare themselves Covid-19 positive after a healthcare provider has officially diagnosed them, so that the system isn’t overrun with false positives. Covid-Watch, for instance, would require the user to get a confirmation code from a health care provider.

Bluetooth-based systems, in contrast with location-based systems, also have some problems of their own. If someone leaves behind traces of the novel coronavirus on a surface, for instance, someone can be infected by it without their phones ever being in proximity.

A spokesperson for the Google and Apple project didn’t deny that possibility, but argued that those cases of „environmental transmission“ are relatively rare compared to direct transmission from people in proximity of each other. „This won’t cut every chain of every transmission,“ the spokesperson said. „But if you cut enough of them, you modulate the transmission enough to flatten the curve.“

 

Astronaut Mike Massimino on How to Make the Most of the COVIT19 / Corona Isolation

We’re all feeling a little cooped up right now. So why not shelter in place like you’re in a space shuttle, orbiting above the Earth?

Mike Massimino has experienced the greatest isolation a human being could ever know: the solitude of space, hundreds of miles above humanity. A NASA astronaut for 18 years, Massimino spent about a month total sheltering in place—or, more accurately, sheltering in space—aboard two separate missions on the space shuttle, donning a suit and stepping out into the ether to repair the Hubble telescope, and taking in the greatest view a human could ever know.

But it was isolation, nonetheless. “Like many of you, I’m sheltering in place right now,” says Massimino, who is currently back on Earth. “I’m inside my home, and it’s kind of like being inside of a spaceship again.” We Earthlings may have the luxury of gravity and grocery stores and fresh air, but you might be feeling more like an astronaut right now than you know. So take it from Massimino: You’re more in control of your isolation than you know.

First of all, he advises, reach out to “mission control,” and be a mission control for someone else. In other words, let others know if you need help, and be available to help them as well. On one spacewalk to fix the Hubble Space Telescope, Massimino recalls, he ended up stripping a bolt on a science instrument while trying to remove a handle. “I thought it was game over,” he says. “I felt like we’re never going to solve this. I’ve created this horrible problem and we’re never going to find out if there’s life anywhere else in the universe and everyone will blame me.” But Massimino took his problem to mission control down on Earth, and they suggested a … blunt solution: Just give the handle a good yank. And indeed, it snapped off. Problem solved.

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

“Reach out, be the person that people can call for help,” Massimino says. “Be their mission control. And don’t forget that your mission control is there to help you as well.” If astronauts can email their loved ones from space (fun fact: Massimino was the first to tweet from space), you can certainly call Grandma.

Also, like astronauts, you need exercise right now—badly. Up in space, microgravity doesn’t give the astronauts opportunities to work their muscles, so they use special treadmills and weight machines. If you’re stuck in your house, you need exercise to keep your body and mind in order. And while you’re out there, take in the scenery. (Six feet away from any other human, of course.) It can’t compare to the view from orbit, but it’ll shake you out of the mundanity of looking at the same walls and furniture all day.

For more tips from Massimino about how to make the most of isolation, including the importance of pursuing meaningful distractions (emphasis on meaningful), check out our video above.

Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to “flatten the curve”

FREE-FOR-ALL VS. ATTEMPTED QUARANTINE

MODERATE SOCIAL DISTANCING vs. EXTENSIVE SOCIAL DISTANCING

This so-called exponential curve has experts worried. If the number of cases were to continue to double every three days, there would be about a hundred million cases in the United States by May.

That is math, not prophecy. The spread can be slowed, public health professionals say, if people practice “social distancing” by avoiding public spaces and generally limiting their movement.

Still, without any measures to slow it down, covid-19 will continue to spread exponentially for months. To understand why, it is instructive to simulate the spread of a fake disease through a population.

We will call our fake disease simulitis. It spreads even more easily than covid-19: whenever a healthy person comes into contact with a sick person, the healthy person becomes sick, too.

In a population of just five people, it did not take long for everyone to catch simulitis.

In real life, of course, people eventually recover. A recovered person can neither transmit simulitis to a healthy person nor become sick again after coming in contact with a sick person.

Let’s see what happens when simulitis spreads in a town of 200 people. We will start everyone in town at a random position, moving at a random angle, and we will make one person sick.

Notice how the slope of the red curve, which represents the number of sick people, rises rapidly as the disease spreads and then tapers off as people recover.

Our simulation town is small — about the size of Whittier, Alaska — so simulitis was able to spread quickly across the entire population. In a country like the United States, with its 330 million people, the curve could steepen for a long time before it started to slow.

[Mapping the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. and worldwide]

When it comes to the real covid-19, we would prefer to slow the spread of the virus before it infects a large portion of the U.S. population. To slow simulitis, let’s try to create a forced quarantine, such as the one the Chinese government imposed on Hubei province, covid-19’s ground zero.

Whoops! As health experts would expect, it proved impossible to completely seal off the sick population from the healthy.

Leana Wen, the former health commissioner for the city of Baltimore, explained the impracticalities of forced quarantines to The Washington Post in January. “Many people work in the city and live in neighboring counties, and vice versa,“ Wen said. “Would people be separated from their families? How would every road be blocked? How would supplies reach residents?”

As Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, put it: “The truth is those kinds of lockdowns are very rare and never effective.”

Fortunately, there are other ways to slow an outbreak. Above all, health officials have encouraged people to avoid public gatherings, to stay home more often and to keep their distance from others. If people are less mobile and interact with each other less, the virus has fewer opportunities to spread.

Some people will still go out. Maybe they cannot stay home because of their work or other obligations, or maybe they simply refuse to heed public health warnings. Those people are not only more likely to get sick themselves, they are more likely to spread simulitis, too.

Let’s see what happens when a quarter of our population continues to move around while the other three quarters adopt a strategy of what health experts call “social distancing.”

More social distancing keeps even more people healthy, and people can be nudged away from public places by removing their allure.

“We control the desire to be in public spaces by closing down public spaces. Italy is closing all of its restaurants. China is closing everything, and we are closing things now, too,” said Drew Harris, a population health researcher and assistant professor at The Thomas Jefferson University College of Public Health. “Reducing the opportunities for gathering helps folks social distance.”

To simulate more social distancing, instead of allowing a quarter of the population to move, we will see what happens when we let just one of every eight people move.

The four simulations you just watched — a free-for-all, an attempted quarantine, moderate social distancing and extensive social distancing — were random. That means the results of each one were unique to your reading of this article; if you scroll up and rerun the simulations, or if you revisit this page later, your results will change.

Even with different results, moderate social distancing will usually outperform the attempted quarantine, and extensive social distancing usually works best of all. Below is a comparison of your results.

Finishing simulations…

Simulitis is not covid-19, and these simulations vastly oversimplify the complexity of real life. Yet just as simulitis spread through the networks of bouncing balls on your screen, covid-19 is spreading through our human networks — through our countries, our towns, our workplaces, our families. And, like a ball bouncing across the screen, a single person’s behavior can cause ripple effects that touch faraway people.

[What you need to know about coronavirus]

In one crucial respect, though, these simulations are nothing like reality: Unlike simulitis, covid-19 can kill. Though the fatality rate is not precisely known, it is clear that the elderly members of our community are most at risk of dying from covid-19.

“If you want this to be more realistic,” Harris said after seeing a preview of this story, “some of the dots should disappear.”

What China’s coronavirus response can teach the rest of the world

Researchers are studying the effects of China’s lockdowns to glean insights about controlling the viral pandemic.
A man wearing a mask sells breakfast to nurses behind a makeshift barricade wall in Wuhan, China.

Social distancing has been used to halt the transmission of the coronavirus in China.Credit: Getty

As the new coronavirus marches around the globe, countries with escalating outbreaks are eager to learn whether China’s extreme lockdowns were responsible for bringing the crisis there under control. Other nations are now following China’s lead and limiting movement within their borders, while dozens of countries have restricted international visitors.

In mid-January, Chinese authorities introduced unprecedented measures to contain the virus, stopping movement in and out of Wuhan, the centre of the epidemic, and 15 other cities in Hubei province — home to more than 60 million people. Flights and trains were suspended, and roads were blocked.

Soon after, people in many Chinese cities were told to stay at home and venture out only to get food or medical help. Some 760 million people, roughly half the country’s population, were confined to their homes, according to The New York Times.

It’s now two months since the lockdowns began — some of which are still in place — and the number of new cases there is around a couple of dozen per day, down from thousands per day at the peak. “These extreme limitations on population movement have been quite successful,” says Michael Osterholm, an infectious-disease scientist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

In a report released late last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) congratulated China on a “unique and unprecedented public health response [that] reversed the escalating cases”.

But the crucial question is which interventions in China were the most important in driving down the spread of the virus, says Gabriel Leung, an infectious-disease researcher at the University of Hong Kong. “The countries now facing their first wave [of infections] need to know this,” he says.

Nature talked to epidemiologists about whether the lockdowns really worked, if encouraging people to avoid large gatherings would have been enough and what other countries can learn from China’s experience.

What happened after the lockdowns?

Before the interventions, scientists estimated that each infected person passed on the coronavirus to more than two others, giving it the potential to spread rapidly. Early models of the disease’s spread, which did not factor in containment efforts, suggested that the virus, called SARS-CoV-2, would infect 40% of China’s population — some 500 million people.

But between 16 and 30 January, a period that included the first 7 days of the lockdown, the number of people each infected individual gave the virus to dropped to 1.05, estimates Adam Kucharski, who models infectious-disease spread at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “That was amazing,” he says.

The number of new daily infections in China seems to have peaked on 25 January — just two days after Wuhan was locked down.

As of 16 March, roughly 81,000 cases have been reported in China, according to the WHO. Some scientists think that many cases there were unreported — either because symptoms were not severe enough for people to seek medical care, or because tests were not carried out. But it seems clear that measures implemented during this time did work, says Christopher Dye, an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, UK. “Even if there were 20 or 40 times more cases, which seems unlikely, the control measures worked,” says Dye.

Could China’s response have worked better?

Epidemiologists say China’s mammoth response had one glaring flaw: it started too late. In the initial weeks of the outbreak in December and January, Wuhan authorities were slow to report cases of the mysterious infection, which delayed measures to contain it, says Howard Markel, a public-health researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “The delay of China to act is probably responsible for this world event,” says Markel.

A model simulation by Lai Shengjie and Andrew Tatem, emerging-disease researchers at the University of Southampton, UK, shows that if China had implemented its control measures a week earlier, it could have prevented 67% of all cases there. Implementing the measures 3 weeks earlier, from the beginning of January, would have cut the number of infections to 5% of the total.

A volunteer disinfects a Christian church in Wuhan

A church in Wuhan is sprayed with disinfectant. Credit: Feature China/Barcroft Media/Getty

Data from other cities also show the benefits of speed. Cities that suspended public transport, closed entertainment venues and banned public gatherings before their first COVID-19 case had 37% fewer cases than cities that didn’t implement such measures, according to a preprint1 by Dye on the containment measures used in 296 Chinese cities.

Did China’s travel bans specifically work?

Multiple analyses of air travel suggest that the Hubei travel bans, which stopped people leaving the province on planes, trains or in cars, slowed the virus’ spread, but not for long2. A 6 March study3 published in Science by scientists in Italy, China and the United States found that cutting off Wuhan delayed disease spread to other cities in China by roughly four days.

The bans had a more lasting effect internationally, stopping four of five cases from being exported from China to other countries for two to three weeks, the team found. But after that, travellers from other cities transported the virus to other international cities, seeding new outbreaks. The team’s model suggests that even blocking 90% of travel slows the virus’s spread only moderately unless other measures are introduced.

Since travel bans can only slow the spread of this type of disease, it’s important that bans be implemented in a way that encourages trust, says Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “If you encourage people to lie or try to circumvent the ban, it is destined to fail,” he says.

Dozens of countries across Europe, the Americas and Africa and Asia have now introduced travel restrictions.

Although the WHO warns against them, saying they aren’t usually effective in preventing an infection’s spread, and they could divert resources from other more helpful measures and block aid and technical support, in addition to harming many industries.

What are the lessons for other countries?

Tatem and Lai’s model assesses the combined effect of China’s early detection and isolation, the resulting drop in contact between people and the country’s intercity travel bans on reducing the virus’s spread. Together, these measures prevented cases from increasing by 67-fold — otherwise, there would have been nearly 8 million cases by the end of February.

The effect of the drop in contact between people was significant on its own. Using mobile-phone location data from Chinese Internet giant Baidu, the team found a dramatic reduction in people’s movements, which they say represents a huge drop in person-to-person contact. Without this decrease, there would have been about 2.6 times as many people infected at the end of February, the pair says.

But early detection and isolation was the most important factor in reducing COVID-19 cases. In the absence of those efforts, China would have had five times as many infections as it did at the end of February. “If you are to prioritize, early detection and isolation are the most important,” says Tatem.

Early detection paid off for Singapore. The country was one of the quickest to identify cases, because doctors had been warned to look out for a ‘mysterious pneumonia’, says Vernon Lee, who heads the communicable-disease response team for Singapore’s health ministry. As the first cases popped up in Singapore, doctors promptly identified and isolated those people and started contact tracing, says Lee.

The country still has under 250 COVID-19 cases, and it didn’t need to introduce the drastic movement restrictions used in China. Some events have been cancelled, people with COVID-19 are being quarantined and temperature screening and other community measures are in place, says Lee. “But life is still going on,” he says.

The impact of school closures in China is unknown. A preprint study4 of the spread of COVID-19 in Shenzhen has found that although children are just as likely to be infected as adults, it is still not clear whether children, many of whom don’t show symptoms, can transmit the virus. “This will be critical in evaluating the impact of school closures,” says Lessler, the co-author of the study.

Are COVID cases coming to an end in China?

New cases of COVID-19 have slowed dramatically in China, but some fear that once the country fully eases its control measures, the virus could start circulating again. It could even be reintroduced into China from the countries now experiencing outbreaks. Because China’s measures protected so many people from infection, a large pool of people have no immunity against the virus, says Leung.

China is suppressing the virus, not eradicating it, says Osterholm. The world will need to wait until about eight weeks after China resumes to some form of normality to know what it did or didn’t accomplish with its population-movement limitations, he says .

There is probably a fierce debate going on in China about when to relax the lockdown measures, says Roy Anderson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London. He suggests there could be a second wave of new infections when they are lifted.

Lockdowns have to end at some point, and governments should remind people to maintain social distancing and good hygiene, says Anderson. “It’s our actions more than government measures that will matter,” he says.

Source: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00741-x

Tech industry discussing ways to use smartphone location data to combat coronavirus

The U.S. government is in active talks with Facebook, Google and a wide array of tech companies and health experts about how they can use location data gleaned from Americans’ phones to combat the novel coronavirus, including tracking whether people are keeping one another at safe distances to stem the outbreak.

Public-health experts are interested in the possibility that private-sector companies could compile the data in anonymous, aggregated form, which they could then use to map the spread of the infection, according to three people familiar with the effort, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the project is in its early stages.

Analyzing trends in smartphone owners’ whereabouts could prove to be a powerful tool for health authorities looking to track coronavirus, which has infected more than 180,000 people globally. But it’s also an approach that could leave some Americans uncomfortable, depending on how it’s implemented, given the sensitivity when it comes to details of their daily whereabouts. Multiple sources stressed that — if they proceed — they are not building a government database.

In recent interviews, Facebook executives said the U.S. government is particularly interested in understanding patterns of people’s movements, which can be derived through data the company collects from users who allow it. The tech giant in the past has provided this information to researchers in the form of statistics, which in the case of coronavirus, could help officials predict the next hotspot or decide where to allocate overstretched health resources.

Google also confirmed late Tuesday it had been in conversations with government officials, tech giants and health experts. The company says it is working on its own to tap its trove of location data, particularly any insights it can derive from its popular maps app.

“We’re exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against COVID-19. One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps,” spokesman Johnny Luu said in a statement, stressing any such partnership “would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts.”

At the White House, an official at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the government is “encouraged by American technology companies looking to leverage aggregated, anonymized data to glean key insights for covid-19 modeling efforts.”

The official added those insights might “help public health officials, researchers, and scientists improve their understanding of the spread of covid-19 and transmission of the disease.”

A task force created by tech executives, entrepreneurs and investors presented a range of ideas around disease mapping and telehealth to the White House during a private meeting Sunday. The discussions included representatives from tech giants, including Apple and Google; investors led by the New York-based firm Hangar and well-known Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ron Conway; public-health leaders from Harvard University; and smaller telehealth start-ups like Ro, two people said.

“We are still in the process of collecting ideas, recommendations, and proposed actions from task-force members, which we intend to present to the White House in the coming days,” said Josh Mendelsohn, the managing partner at Hangar, who helped organize the effort.

Many of those involved either did not respond or declined to comment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not respond to a request for comment. Apple said Tuesday it has only worked on issues related to telehealth and distance learning, stressing it doesn’t collect iPhone users’ locations.

The early, unprecedented collaboration between Washington and Silicon Valley reflects the urgent, nationwide scramble to stop a deadly malady that has shuttered businesses, skewered the stock market, sent students home from school and now threatens to overwhelm the U.S. medical system with patients in need of critical care.

Over the past week, White House officials led by Michael Kratsios, the country’s chief technology officer, have convened meetings to leverage the tech expertise of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM and other technology leaders. The government has encouraged social-media sites to take a more aggressive approach to thwart coronavirus conspiracy theories, The Washington Post has reported, responding to concerns that foreign misinformation might be stoking panic about the outbreak. And the Trump administration has explored partnering with the tech industry to improve telework and telehealth offerings for millions of Americans.

The relationship hasn’t been without its hiccups: On Friday, President Trump announced Google would be developing a website so Americans could learn how to get tested for coronavirus, which causes the disease covid-19. That differed from the initial statements from Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which had indicated it planned a more limited offering targeting residents of California. Ultimately, though, Google said soon after it would unveil a website to provide information for U.S. patients nationwide.

On Monday, White House leaders, tech experts and health officials struck a more unified note, unveiling a portal for roughly 29,000 research papers on coronavirus. The portal allows the tech industry’s artificial-intelligence tools — which can scan and analyze data en masse — to process the papers rapidly to uncover new insights about the global malady.

“Decisive action from America’s science and technology enterprise is critical to prevent, detect, treat, and develop solutions to COVID-19,” Kratsios said in a statement.

The new efforts by Washington and Silicon Valley arrived the same week that dozens of engineers, executives and epidemiologists issued an open letter, calling on companies to take a greater stand against coronavirus. Specifically, they encouraged Apple and Google to adopt “privacy preserving” features that might enable authorities to help doctors determine people who were in contact with a patient that later tested positive for coronavirus.

“Technology companies have taken important steps already, such as closing offices in affected areas or showing custom search results in place of user generated content. But we believe there is a lot more that Silicon Valley can do to assist with large scale mitigation,” they wrote.

Smartphones regularly transmit their locations to wireless carriers and often to major tech companies as well, including Google and Facebook, to make some of their services work. The makers of apps that deliver weather reports, hail rides or help people find a coffee shop also frequently collect location information, and some sell it to firms that mine the data for business insights and opportunities.

Privacy advocates typically look skeptically on such commercial uses of location data, calling for stricter laws governing its use. Recent news about Israel’s plans to use location data to help track the coronavirus similarly sparked intense discussions about the legal and ethical implications of deploying such data to thwart the spread of disease and get medical help to infected people.

“The balance between privacy and pandemic policy is a delicate one,” Al Gidari, director of privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, tweeted last week. “The problem here is that this is not a law school exam. Technology can save lives, but if the implementation unreasonably threatens privacy, more lives may be at risk.”

The issues are all the more sensitive for Silicon Valley because the companies faced a severe backlash in 2013, following disclosures about the role of tech company data in surveillance by the National Security Agency, made public by agency contractor Edward Snowden. Relations between tech companies and government officials were severely strained for years after and have improved only gradually.

“Privacy is the first to go when there are national security issues,” said Ashkan Soltani, a former Federal Trade Commission chief technologist who covered the Snowden revelations as a journalist.

In seeking to battle the coronavirus, the U.S. government is not seeking to collect and maintain a database of Americans’ whereabouts, sources cautioned. Rather, U.S. officials have asked whether companies’ vast stores of geolocation data might help epidemiologists spot trends, including vulnerable populations, or identify areas at risk, such as hospitals under strain, two people said.

Facebook is already working with health researchers and nonprofits in several countries to provide anonymized and aggregated statistics about people’s movements through a project called disease-prevention maps.

Facebook populates its maps with the aid of its users, who have given the company permission to collect their location — harnessed via their smartphones — while its app runs in the background. Those locations are then aggregated and anonymized by Facebook engineers, who can calculate the likelihood people in one city or town are likely to visit another area, potentially spreading the outbreak there.

The most granular data Facebook provides to outsiders can locate a person to within about a third of a mile, Facebook officials say. The tech giant does not provide any data about individuals’ movement, aggregated or otherwise, to governments for disease tracking, the company says.

“You’re trying to predict the probability that a group of people in Prince George’s County might interact with a group of people from D.C.,” said Laura McGorman, who leads the project, referring to the Maryland county in suburban Washington. Such a prediction could offer clues for how infections might travel.

McGorman said government officials, including those in California, are also interested in seeing whether people are practicing social distancing and whether it is an effective strategy. She said engineers had labored over the past 48 hours to help authorities with their requests.

She said the project is in the early phases because it is challenging to map real-time location streaming in from smartphones against analog information coming in from hospitals and cities. “It is very humbling because we have one piece of the puzzle that we can offer but there are so many other inputs in understanding how disease will spread.”

For its part, Google said Tuesday it had not shared any aggregated, anonymized data, stressing the project is still in its early stages — and that it was still considering whether to participate. The company added it did not plan to tap its cache of users’ location information to help in so-called “contact tracing” efforts to find people at risk of contracting coronavirus, explaining the data could not be adapted to help in that manner.

Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/03/17/white-house-location-data-coronavirus/

Israeli Spyware Firm NSO Wants to Track Data to Stop Coronavirus Spreading

An Israeli technology company, which has gained notoriety for the spyware it sells, has developed a new product it says has the ability to track the spread of the coronavirus.

NSO Group Ltd.’s product analyzes huge volumes of data to map people’s movements to identify who they’ve come in contact with, which can then be used to stop the spread of infection, according to a person familiar with the matter.

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About a dozen countries are testing the NSO technology, the person familiar said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a private matter. The software takes two weeks of mobile-phone tracking information from the infected person — the incubation time of the virus — then matches with location data collected by national mobile phone companies that pinpoints citizens who were in the patient’s vicinity for more than 15 minutes and are vulnerable to contagion, the person said.

NSO’s new product is being tested just as Israel approves the use of a tracking technology developed to combat terrorism to retrace the movements of coronavirus patients and people they’ve encountered. The step has proved controversial, with critics saying it constitutes an invasion of Israeli citizens’ privacy.

NSO itself has a history fraught with privacy and human rights controversy. Its spyware has been suspected of helping Saudi Arabia spy on murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an accusation the company has denied. Speculation its software may have been used to hack the phone of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos was also denied by the company. WhatsApp has filed a lawsuit against NSO, alleging that it violated the messaging platform’s terms of service by using it as a delivery mechanism for its spyware.

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Civilian Product

The data analysis tool is the company’s first civilian product. Unlike NSO’s better-known Pegasus spyware, the big-data software doesn’t track mobile phones or conduct surveillance, the person said. It’s a civilian product sold to national health ministries and doesn’t need special export permission from Israel’s Ministry of Defense, the person said.

Should the software determine a possible case of contagion, a text message is sent to the SIM number, without revealing the owner’s identity to authorities, the person familiar said. Only when citizens test positive for the virus — and give permission — can officials correlate their SIM cards with their identities, the person said.

An NSO spokesman confirmed that the company developed a new data-analysis product with the ability to map the spread of the epidemic and help contain it. He declined further comment.

NSO has said it sells its surveillance technology to law enforcement and intelligence agencies to help catch criminals and terrorists. It can tap into a phone’s microphone and camera, view email and messages and collect location data on the user.

‘Surveillance Democracy?’

On Monday, the Israeli government authorized the country’s Shin Bet internal security agency to deploy a similar technology to track the virus among its citizens, which was originally developed to monitor the movement of militants.

Critics raised concerns about putting such technology in governments’ hands.

“We can use any technology to fight this horrible disease,” said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, head of the democracy in the information age program at the Israel Democracy Institute research center. “The question is, who will do it? And who will supervise it? And who will promise that after this is over, we won’t become a surveillance democracy?”

In Taiwan, Singapore and all of Europe, governments hired private companies that send the data they collect to health ministries, Altshuler noted.

“Nowhere have they involved the secret services,” she said.

The disease, which originated in China late last year, has spread to 141 countries and regions, infecting more than 180,000 people, killing more than 7,000 and sending economies cratering. Israel has 304 confirmed cases, with no deaths.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the technology “will greatly assist us in locating patients and thereby stop the spread of the virus” and stressed “strict oversight” of the tools “to ensure they would not be abused.”

source: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-17/surveillance-company-nso-supplying-data-analysis-to-stop-virus