MIT Proposes To Use Bluetooth To Track The Spread of COVID-19

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers want to use Bluetooth signals to create a database to trace the spread of coronavirus, according to The Washington Post. The plan, currently operating on a small set of test devices, resembles the contemporaneous scheme unveiled by Google and Apple. 

Those testing positive for coronavirus would voluntarily upload a log of Bluetooth signals from their smartphone to a database. This will allow others to be notified if they have come into contact with someone who has tested positive; users would also be able to scan the database to see if they were exposed to someone with COVID-19.

The planned technology would keep personal information private. It would not reveal any information about the identity of someone testing positive; it will only reveal that the two Bluetooth devices came into contact with each other based on anonymous signals. Other countries have used GPS tracking to trace the spread of the virus, however, the practice also raised privacy concerns.

“Our effort is designed to show that there is a privacy preserving way of doing this kind of automated contact tracing,” Daniel Weitzner, a principal research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and co-principal investigator of endeavor, said. Weitzner added, “I have zero expectation that if you just put out an app just like that and say. ‘Here it is, it’s in the App Store,’ that we would get to the level of deployment that’s actually necessary to have a public health impact. That’s going to have to happen as part of a state or regional or national public health strategy, and we think it’s pretty likely that it’s going to require active support from the iOS and Android platforms.”

The code behind the project will be open-source, so other companies and developers can have access and build apps to help users take advantage of the technology.

There have been efforts by tech companies to use technology to fight the pandemic. Apple and Google are partnering to develop apps to fight the virus using similar applications of Bluetooth, EU telecom companies are helping to track COVID-19, and Facebook and Google have been pressured to share location data. MIT researchers are attempting to address both issues: privacy and public health. However, the researchers need mobile phone manufacturers to lift some restrictions on developers’ access to Bluetooth technology to allow greater use of this information during this time.

“My view is that we absolutely should not be in and do it at all costs approach,” Weitzner said. “What we should be in is do the minimum necessary to be effective.”