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Data tracking to tackle future pandemics via smartphones

Switzerland is contributing to a European digital platform that promises to combat the spread of pandemics by better identifying people at risk of viral infection.

According to the scientists behind the platform, the system alerts anyone who has been in contact with an infected person without compromising the data privacy of individuals.

Knowing who has tested positive for a virus is not enough to contain its spread. The Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) system identifies who is most at risk of having picked it up without yet knowing that they too are contagious.

Crunching data from a variety of smartphone apps, spread across multiple countries, the platform can pinpoint those at risk from infection and connect them with their local health services. It is being offered as an antidote to nationwide lockdowns imposed by governments that have no other means of controlling the spread of coronavirus.

“We all know that as a society and as an economy we cannot go on like this for extended periods of time,” Marcel Salthé, an epidemiologist at Lausanne’s Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), told a media conference on Wednesday. “Instead of quarantining entire populations, we could focus on the very few people who need it.”

Coronavirus has been so much harder to contain than the SARS virus because this time around people appear to be contagious before they show symptoms, Salthé explained. This intensifies the need to identify anyone who had been in contact with coronavirus victims before they even knew they were infected.

Voluntary system

PEPP-PT is set to go live as early as next week. Scientists from eight countries, including Switzerland, have been working on the system that will be incorporated in Switzerland as a non-profit entity. The system squares the circle of tracing people’s movements with privacy safeguards in place.

Individuals can voluntarily download apps that encrypt their identities whilst tracking their movements. If they come into close proximity to a person who has later tested positive for a contagious virus, it will send an alert and connect them with the health authorities.

Unlike other digital tracking systems that have been used to contain coronavirus around the world, the PEPP-PTT designers say their version will not simply pull data from telecommunications providers and hand it to governments. PEPP-PTT will also comply with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

“The idea is to make the technology available to as many countries, managers of infectious disease responses and developers as quickly and as easily as possible,” reads a statement. “The technical mechanisms and standards…fully protect privacy and leverage the possibilities and features of digital technology to maximise speed and real-time capability of any national pandemic response.”