MIT and makers of the app Private Kit: Safe Paths say they’ve overcome an iOS and Android interoperability issue that will make the coronavirus contact tracking app able to track close proximity with other people using Bluetooth. MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory accomplished the feat last week.
Currently, Private Kit logs location history using GPS for 28 days. Bluetooth proximity apps record when two devices running the app are near each other. When a person tests positive for COVID-19, notifications can be sent to people who were nearby. Safe Paths will soon be able to share any incidences of contact between two people that occur within 14 days.
Project lead and MIT associate professor Ramesh Raskar said the Private Kit: Safe Paths team is currently in talks with over 30 different countries like India, Italy, Germany, and Vietnam. A MIT spokesperson said Private Kit pilots are underway in several countries include Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom as well as five locations across the U.S. from Alaska to Los Angeles and near Boston.
The Private Kit: Safe Paths team is also in ongoing negotiations and talks with the World Health Organization and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“Safe Paths is a platform to create completely interoperable standards. So we expect most apps to be based on, you know, the safe paths repository,” he said. “And in case Brazil creates one, and Mexico creates one and so on, anyone who travels from one country to another, you know, it’s the same base for everyone, because we don’t expect Brazil to use an MIT app.”
Private Kit is also working with makers of other Bluetooth tracing apps like COVID Watch on an open source offering that ensures Bluetooth pings picked up by one app are seen by others.
Bluetooth proximity-tracing apps must overcome interoperability issues before being considered a viable solution for recording instances when a person may contract coronavirus.
Privacy is also a primary concern.
“So the healthy people never has to share their data, but for infected people they can release that data in an anonymized, aggregated, and redacted fashion. The next version will be encrypted as well,” Raskar said.
The makers of Bluetooth contact tracing apps say if the solution for automated contact tracing gains widespread adoption, they could be part of the way some countries or regions return to normal life in a world without a cure to COVID-19.
Private Kit builders include people who makers of FluPhone, MIT Alliance for Distributed and Private Machine Learning, members of MIT Media Lab, and MIT CSAIL’s Ron Rivest, cocreator of the RSA algorithm and symmetric key encryption algorithms. MIT also worked with Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Global Health, Boston University, Brown University, The Weizmann Institute of Science, and SRI International.
In addition to allowing people to follow their movements or proximity tracing today, creators say Private Kit: Safe Paths is intended to act as a proof of concept for Apple and Google, dominant controllers of mobile operating systems around the world.
“They have a critical role here. The aim of the prototype is to prove to these developers that this is feasible for them to implement,” Rivest said in a statement shared with VentureBeat.
Both Apple and Google have faced questions in recent days from U.S. Senators about privacy aspects related to COVID-19 surveillance.
Engineers who built Private Kit were advised by a medical advisory team led by Louise Ivers, who is an infectious disease expert, associate professor at Harvard Medical School, and executive director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Global Health. The Mayo Clinic and MILA professor and deep learning Yoshua Bengio also contributed as advisors.
Since the launch of iOS and Android apps roughly one month ago Safe Paths has been downloaded more than 10,000 times.
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