Experts, customers, policymakers, and entrepreneurs came together for an EIT Health discussion exploring the use of physical tokens for COVID-19 contact tracing.
By Stephanie Price
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, digital technology was utilised to help combat the crisis, with countries across the globe deploying several smartphone-based contact tracing apps to monitor the spread of the virus.
However, the use of mobile apps for contact tracing has raised several concerns including privacy, the complexity of running contact tracing on apps, the problem of interoperability, and the issue of a centralised versus decentralised approach. Furthermore, smartphone-based systems are controlled by an extremely small minority of private firms – raising concerns over sovereignty.
Decentralised physical tokens
Physical tokens are currently utilised in a number of areas, such as logistics and product tracking. The tokens can come in the form of a small USB-like device, for example, that is linked to anonymised data on a decentralised digital database. Using this kind of token for COVID-19 contact tracing can offer users a higher degree of privacy than smartphone-based systems, as no personally identifiable information is contained on the token.
Speaking at the EIT Health event, Professor Willem Jonker CEO of EIT Digital, commented: “When the COVID-19 pandemic started, we saw immediately in Asia that digital tech was called on to fight the pandemic. A variation of tracing apps were deployed to help fight the virus – in particular, to help with tracing and tracking how the virus was spreading the population.
“Because things moved at such a high speed, manual tracking and tracing was not enough to keep things under control. It also became apparent that the situation in Europe was quite different from the situation in Asia. In Europe, it became clear that any solution would have to focus on guaranteeing the privacy of the users – which launched a debate on what kind of technology and protocols to use. We saw initiatives in Europe that were little co-ordinated, and many attempts at building contact tracing apps were undertaken with varying degrees of success. None of the European apps became a flagship success model of how to do it.
“If you look at logistics there is a lot of tracking and tracing going on – what technology is used? Tokens that are attached to the object that can then track and trace them. This technology has much more potential in the future than just tracking the virus, so it is important that Europe develops this technology itself – Europe must make sure it can have its own position.
“We have developed an overarching system and called on parties to develop solutions based on tokens for contact tracing.”
Preserving user privacy
Speaking at the event Professor Bart Preneel, Professor of Cryptology at KU Leuven, key contributor to the Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (DP-3T) protocol which was created as a response to COVID-19, and architect of the Belgian contact tracing app, highlighted that decentralised solutions guarantee strong privacy for users and large-scale roll-out – encouraging public uptake.
The principal of the DP-3T protocol is identity-based encryption that reveals a key only for a particular time slot. If a venue is identified as high risk based on the device, codes are stored with encryption so it is not possible to identify where a user has been, but they can be informed if they were at risk.
Praneel noted that a number of apps in Asia published the location of infected users in an anonymous way, but that it became possible to deanonymise the data.
“Cell phone surveillance can be used to detect when people leave their homes and can be highly intrusive,” he said. “There were efforts to roll out proximity tracing and the protocol that became successful was fully transparent, open, and protects privacy.
“There were a number of examples of data collection being abused in the pandemic – for example in the UK police were given access to test and trace data and in Australia spy agencies were collecting COVID-19 app data. The most high-profile case in Europe is that of Norway, which modelled its app on those used in Korea, Singapore, and Israel, using location-based technologies. It had to shut off the app because it was privacy-violating.”
Preneel wanted to compliment manual contact tracing – creating an app with data minimisation without a central database and without GPS, and which protected identities in a ‘privacy by design’ model, including the ‘right to be forgotten.’ He highlighted another aim was to create a system that would be easy to fade out and does not linger beyond the pandemic. “We need to be careful we do not end up in a society whereby everyone is traced all the time,” he said, noting that the proximity tracing protocols should be accurate, secure, scalable, transparent, voluntary, and fast to deploy.
“Rather than having centralised system – decentralised databases store random data of infected people but will not tell you who it was. They send out a random signal which makes it possible to identify who you were close to without needing more information – data in a central system is much more sensitive.”
To date, there have been over 100 million downloads in the European region of DP-3T-based apps, which are able to share the data cross-border, warning users of infection even if they are not in their home country. “This is a major success, even if the ecosystem is not perfect, given the time constraints and complexities in helping authorities integrate this with health infrastructure and the legal aspects.”
These physical tokens can be used by businesses and large-scale events to help re-open society by replacing manual tracking systems. To facilitate this, EIT Health has called on European entrepreneurial teams in the Nordics, Benelux, Italy, UK, and Hungary, which are developing token-based tracing systems that have been piloted at construction sites, stadiums, schools, and offices, as an alternative to the struggling smartphone-based apps.
Speaking at the event, Tamas Kadar CEO of Sziget Festival, said: “Because of the pandemic all festivals and large-scale events were shut down. If you go back in time we were never using contact tracing in this sense, but in most cases, we have introduced a system whereby before you enter the site we have a checking system where we identify the people who enter and we connect this data to a bracelet they use as a ticket. It is also used for cashless payments on site.
“Adding a contact tracing device to that bracelet will allow us to trace the people and who they contact during the festival.”
Javier Murillo Ricote, Senior Project Manager, Ferrovial, said: “Token systems can replace pen and paper tracking systems used by businesses – having segregated lunch hours, breaks, and team rooms, tokens can ensure people are really segregated and help understand how well our approaches work. If someone gets infected half the site will be infected within a couple of weeks.”
Dave Hurhangee CEO of UK token C-Spyder, which creates a web that will capture information relevant to the pandemic, said: “At the heart of the technology is a global cellular modem built into every unit and which is completely anonymous, if you test positive it is transmitted through a modem – not through mobile. It can retain information in the country of transmission, or if countries join together can be pooled centrally.
“It records the core body temperature and other vitals, adding more value to the data being tracked – knowing you have interacted with someone who has a fever is useful. This is not just for COVID-19 but any viral infection.
Hurhangee highlighted the benefits of this technology beyond contact tracing in the pandemic: “Our token had to be more than just a token, so it has both man down and fall detection to help lone workers, and wellbeing functionalities to help uptake. It is also reusable and incorporates green technology and materials.”
The token has been piloted with Ferrovial with nearly 100k employees around the world. “The use case is quite large – giving people the confidence to go back to work and having a social distancing function – we think this will be needed in long term,” added Hurhangee.