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Question: I understand my iPhone is now doing contact tracing so the authorities can keep track of how often I’m close to other people? And that I can be notified if I’ve come close to someone who tests positive for COVID-19? How does that all work?

Dave Taylor

Answer: Things have definitely changed since the last time our culture tackled a pandemic. Now we all carry around convenient tracking devices, which makes it easy to aggregate information and figure out how people move around an area and how often we are in close proximity.

That’s exactly how traffic data is ascertained for Google Maps and Apple Maps, too. They track phones moving along a highway and compare current velocity versus average; the slower the phones move, the more traffic there is. Ingenious, really.

In the old days contagious disease contact tracing was tedious, manual detective work: You’re sick? Who have you been in contact with in the last six days? 

Now it’s all automated. 

But let’s be clear: Contact tracing does not constantly report your location to a central service, however, it’s more akin to how Find My Phone works.

The challenge with this modern technological solution is privacy. None of us want the government tracking our every move and building massive databases of everyone with whom we’ve interacted. That’s why the foundation of the contact tracing solutions is private automated contact tracing, or PACT, and it’s pretty cool.

PACT works through Bluetooth pings known as “chirps.” All phones send and receive these pings and your phone is constantly recording the chirps from adjacent phones. If you then report  you’ve tested positive for COVID-19, the stored chirps from the last two weeks are uploaded, analyzed, other devices identified and notifications issued.

The Bluetooth chirp ID to device mapping is the key privacy element, and that information is stored by national health organizations, not the FBI, National Security Agency or any other law enforcement or government agency.

Apple and Google also are scrambling identifying information and changing your phone’s ID every 10 to 15 minutes. If and when you receive a notification, it will not include any identifying information about the person who has reported positive.

As of May 20, the latest updates to both Android and iPhone’s iOS include this contact tracing feature. If you don’t install the Centers for Disease Control app or a similar authorized app, the contact tracing feature will remain disabled, however. I, for one, would rather receive notifications if I’ve inadvertently been in close proximity to someone who tests positive than not know otherwise.

If you’d like to read more about the privacy aspects from health officials, engineers and privacy advocates, Google News has quite a lot of information on the subject.

 

Dave Taylor has been involved with the online world since before the launch of the Internet and runs the popular AskDaveTaylor.com tech help site. You can also find AskDaveTaylor on Facebook and check out the AskDaveTaylor YouTube channel, too.

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