by Demetrios Zeinalipour-Yazti (University of Cyprus) and Christophe Claramunt (Naval Academy Research Institute)

The outbreak of the COVID-19 global pandemic has called for practical information and communication technologies to contribute to the worldwide effort to track and curb the spread of the virus. To this end, a series of mobile contact tracing applications (MCTA) have been developed to help identify people who may have been in contact with a person infected with COVID-19 and to rapidly deliver information to these individuals. We gathered together prominent scientists to discuss the major and open topics surrounding MCTA [1] in an online panel discussion at the 21st IEEE International Conference on Mobile Data Management [L1], held between 30 June and 3 July 2020, Versailles, France.

The aim of the panel discussion on mobile contact tracing apps (MCTAs) was to convey to the audience an advanced understanding of the unique characteristics, socio-technical challenges and opportunities in the sphere of contact tracing mobile apps. The panel comprised eminent industrial, governmental and academic experts: Prof. Vania Bogorny, Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil; Dr. Yannick Léo, Emerton Data, France; Prof. Stan Matwin, Dalhousie University, Canada; Mr. Thierry Roussel, Alstom SA, France; Prof. Moustafa Youssef, Alexandria University, Egypt. Together they brought a wealth of experience to the discussion, giving decisive answers to challenging technical, socio-economic and ethical questions that were open to public debate amongst a large international audience of several hundreds of academics and postgraduate students. The discussion revolved around a series of key issues that mobile contact tracing applications have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, pinpointed the key technical challenges and opportunities, and suggested how we might address them.

On the topic of privacy and ethics, there was a clear consensus about the importance of relying on a trusted entity, supported by the broader scientific community, to direct the development of the MCTAs. To be confident in the way the data is stored and used, and to ensure that the most balanced centralised/decentralised implementation architecture is used, this task should not be left to smartphone operating systems such as Apple and Google.

Further, in the absence of a strong political strategy and widespread public acceptance, MCTA will be useless. Indeed, robust political engagement and continuous pedagogy across the media are needed to secure adherence by a large proportion of the population (the current penetration rate is between 5 and 20% in western countries, which is far from sufficient). This kind of strategic approach is essential if MCTAs are to succeed, and will lead to better coordination of development and implementation initiatives at the international level and better coordination from the World Health Organization. Legal issues are an important part of the picture as recently demonstrated in Australia where the Privacy Act 1988 was amended to ensure privacy protection for users of the national MCTA [2].

The inherent antonymy between privacy and MCTA means it is vital to develop specific protocols to guarantee data destruction in the long term (i.e., Sunset clause guarantee) and to clearly define how MCTA tracing data should be used and by whom. In the midst of a pandemic, timing matters: tracing data must be made available to the right people at the right time, as well as aggregated for epidemiologic studies and shared across regions. While these protocols should be coordinated across different implementations and mobile phone technologies, data security and integrity issues should also be carefully considered. Location-based data are another key issue to secure MCTAs. So far, indirect tracking technologies have been widely used, but GPS does not work everywhere and it is unlikely to be sufficiently precise or ubiquitous. There is a need for additional tracing sensors in indoor environments (BLE, Wi-Fi, RFID, etc.), fine resolution real-time data and easy-to-use interfaces.

Beyond government initiatives, applications such as live dashboards have been emerging from crowdsourcing initiatives that rely on volunteers. These apps, which are based on public trust and confidence, also deserve attention (e.g., COVID-19 Hong Kong Map [L2]).

The pandemic is leading to a change of paradigm, from individual to collective, as demonstrated by the success of many Asian countries in the combat against the COVID-19 pandemic. MCTAs form just part of the bigger picture; social distancing and compliance with health recommendations should be followed until a treatment and/or vaccine is available and distributed globally. The knowledge we acquire from this experience is likely to be invaluable in the future as human environmental exploitation and interaction contributes to further pandemics.

Links:
[L1] http://mdmconferences.org/mdm2020/panel.html 
[L2] https://covid19.vote4.hk/en
    
References:
[1] D. Zeinalipour-Yazti and C. Claramunt, “COVID-19 Mobile Contact Tracing Apps (MCTA): A Digital Vaccine or a Privacy Demolition?”, 21st IEEE International Conference on Mobile Data Management (MDM), Versailles, France, 2020, pp. 1-4,
doi: 10.1109/MDM48529.2020.00020.
[2] Australian Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information), Act 2020, No. 44, 2020, http://tiny.cc/d0vopz

Please contact:
Demetrios Zeinalipour-Yazti, University of Cyprus
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Christophe Claramunt, Naval Academy Research Institute, France
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