Researchers develop platform to use mobile phones to fight disease without sacrificing privacy
Berlin. The Easter excursion is cancelled. The prime ministers of the 16 countries agreed on Wednesday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) to extend the contact requirements, which are often limited to two weeks, beyond the holidays until at least 19 April. They hope that the measure will work and that new infections with the coronavirus will decrease as a result. With low numbers, the chance is greater to identify, isolate, and trace contacts – be it by hand, digitally, with an app for the smartphone. It is the last cry in the fight against Sars-CoV2. Does a Corona app bring us back freedom? That is the hope of Hans-Christian Boos. “We want to go outside again,” he told our editorial board. Free, tamper-proof, cross-border compatible Boos, one of the leading entrepreneurs in the field of artificial intelligence and known to Chancellor Merkel from the Digital Council of the German Government, has worked with 130 scientists from eight countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Denmark) has developed a framework technology in recent weeks. The project is called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) and stands for a platform that can be used by apps, regardless of country or operator. The network of developers believes it will be available by April 7 at the latest, and promises it will be tried and tested, tamper-proof and free. The advantages are that the apps communicate with each other, even across national borders, and that privacy would be protected. Only then will the system find bipartisan advocates. If it is a breakthrough, it is also political.
The idea of locating, tracking infected people by mobile phone is not new and has been tried millions of times in South Korea or Singapore. Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) wanted to use radio cell data for location services in the event of an epidemic of national significance in Germany. He was stopped and withdrew his initiative. However, he has achieved one thing: to initiate a debate in society and to encourage the people of PEPP-PT in their plans. Everyone wants a lifesaver, a potential monitoring tool the fewest. When Merkel opened the video round with the prime ministers yesterday, she already knew the solution – an app that is as voluntary as it is mass-friendly and preserves the protection of privacy: no location data, no identifying features. It is a data-saving, epidemiologically preferred and politically kosher alternative to Spahn’s first proposal. There is a risk of getting infected with strangers in the supermarket, in the pharmacy or in the train; be it within a few minutes. Smartphones can help track such contacts. The starting point is anonymized data, which smartphones capture with Bluetooth sensors and exchange them with each other. You will notice if other phones are in the immediate vicinity for several minutes. With the knowledge, it is possible to warn others if they have had contact with people who later have the virus detected. Ideally, it will be associated with the “invitation” to be tested and quarantined. The point is that everything is voluntary. No one will be forced to download the app. And everyone would have the data (who they hit) at first only on their phone and could share it in case of infection. Boos assures that the system is compatible with the Data Protection Act. The apps themselves can be developed and offered differently in each country. In Germany, companies such as Vodafone and scientific institutions such as the Robert Koch Institute and the Heinrich Hertz Institute are working on this. The latter has already been tested in Berlin with the help of the Bundeswehr, as the head of the institute Professor Thomas Wiegand explained. About 50 soldiers had simulated the contact situations in a field study. Now that it is calibrated, the technology should be installed immediately. The apps can build on this, reportedly in the second week of April at the earliest. You could then travel within Europe – and yet the chains of infection would be traceable.
This is “very fast,” as Swiss professor Marcel Salathé, an expert in digital epidemiology, pointed out. The people of PEPP-PT say that the virus is fast and knows no limits. “To get it under control, you have to act in the same way, quickly and in international cooperation.” However, one should not believe that the technology is suitable for currently reducing the number of cases, explained Salathé. The goal is to make as broad a commitment as possible when normal life gets back on track and new chains of infection threaten. The prerequisite is that as many people as possible participate. It is estimated that well over 70 percent of German citizens – about 58 million – have a smartphone. However, many toddlers and older people do not have a mobile phone. Ideal would be for the corona control. more than 60 percent of the population would install a PEPP-PT app. “I’ll install this app immediately.” Achim Berg, Bitkom President Chancellor’s Office considers the approach “very promising” Spahn said tracking contact persons of Corona-infected people is “digitally easier than when someone in the health department starts to make phone calls.” It fits with his political timing that just yesterday he introduced a bill through the Cabinet to allow for electronic prescriptions and medical records. Chancellor’s Office Minister Helge Braun (CDU) considers the approach of the scientists to be “very promising”. The data protection officer Ulrich Kelber has given the green light for a voluntary solution. Many politicians are convinced that the citizens will join in. In the digital community, the news sparked enthusiasm. Achim Berg, president of the trade association Bitkom, promised that “I will install this app immediately”.