A Blockchain-based add-on can increase the value of Coronavirus contact-tracing apps and other smartphone software. It may concern you.

Many governments are busy selecting the most appropriate software technologies to be leveraged in the gigantic contact-tracing exercises that await them after a lockdown.

One such software is a smartphone app or something equivalent.

The creators of one of the best second-generation Blockchain technologies, Algorand, are proposing that Coronavirus contact-tracing software be augmented with a Blockchain-based add-on that makes it more effective.

Coronavirus contact-tracing

Contact-tracing will be a labor-intensive effort, requiring an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 trained workforce in the US alone.

When citizen C is tested positive, authorities will rush to search for all people who have been in physical contact with C for an appreciable amount of time in the preceding 14 days or so. These recent contacts may need to be quarantined and dealt with accordingly for weeks.

Mathematical models indicate that, depending on a number of factors including the effective reproduction number R, in order to stop the epidemic with no further lockdowns and using just contact-tracing, a large proportion of all infected (50% or more) should be isolated within few days of the release of the lockdown and about as many of their contacts found within another few days.

This can be very difficult to accomplish in practice.

However, every effort in such a direction will be useful, especially when combined with disease monitoring, social distancing, hygiene, and some limitations on the most-dangerous human contacts.

A piece of software in citizens’ pockets, like an app, would be a welcome aid for contact-tracing.

Some challenges

Currently, the smartphone-based solutions that have emerged as most popular are apps using Bluetooth proximity detection to avoid resorting to geolocation, a particularly feared feature. (A source of great amusement for me, since for over a decade people have been avidly donating their geolocation for uses ranging from driving to registering in restaurants, resorts, and sports arenas).

In most democracies, the currently dominant idea is that citizens should be free to download the app or not. The assumption is also typically made that users themselves are responsible for loading into the system their medical condition concerning Covid.

The rocks on the road to make this working, and useful, are many, including:

  • Not many people spontaneously downloaded apps so far. Just 25% Singaporeans have done it after two months of availability; after a week, 25% Norwegians but only 8% Australians did. Reports are sparse and confused but none is encouraging;
  • Of those who download the app, only a fraction will actually configure it, keep Bluetooth always active and the smartphone always on;
  • Perhaps most importantly, not a lot of people may be available to self-register as positives, when they are tested as such, with the risk of losing their jobs and jeopardizing those of relatives;
  • Embedding contact-tracing functionality in Android and iOS has limitations, because different countries have different needs and desiderata.

Some Asian authorities have been using different expedients than smartphone apps so far, including closed-circuit television footage, credit card point-of-sale payments, mobile GSM data, GPS location, and QR codes (used to trace people’s whereabouts, from buildings to public transport to shops).

According to Tomás Pueyo, one of the very best analysts of the Coronavirus crisis:

The best options are mandatory QR codes or bluetooth apps. They give an immediate dump of contacts, while privacy can be reasonably maintained since the only thing that authorities receive is the person’s information and the list of matches, along with where and when they happened.

In other words, people should be obliged to use QR codes or apps, or at most be allowed to opt-out. In my opinion, GPS geolocation should be used too.

In South Korea, one of the few countries successful in fighting the new coronavirus, people are geolocated using phones and credit card transactions. In Taiwan, if you are quarantined and turn out your phone or the battery goes off, the police will be at your door in 30 minutes.

Many of you will be scared to hear that. However, these are democracies.

Finding infected people in a pandemic is, from a privacy viewpoint, dealt with like when searching for criminals. Legal provisions had been arranged after the SARS-Cov-1 pandemic in 2004.

Data can be anonymized and deleted after the crisis is ended.

Enter Algorand

Whether the contact-tracing aid is an app or QR code or the operating system itself, Algorand’s proposal is for a blockchain-enabled app that would

  • Offer citizens the chance to see the same (possibly anonymous) data as governments. This is a  powerful, self-breeding feature: as people learn that they can participate and monitor, usage of the solution should grow;
  • Allow to correctly and efficiently learn how many citizens have opted into the system – a less reliable count if based on software downloads;
  • Allow everyone, not just the governmental authority, to share the dynamics of (anonymous) social interactions. Foreign governments and researchers, for example, could log in and see;
  • Ensure the authenticity of all redacted records flowing from individual users to the central system. No central agency has a way to modify the list. This would keep to a minimum the risk of abuse as well as conspiracy theories ;
  • Allow users to possibly elect other agencies, in addition to the governmental one, entitled to receive their reporting.

Algorand (correctly) fears that it may be too late for such a solution to be implemented for this pandemic, as it requires coordination between industry, tech providers, and governments.

The role of Blockchain

Depending on the choice made country by country or state by state in federal nations, the crucial information that Mr. C has been tested as infected would be created in the smartphone by either C himself or a governmental authority. (I strongly prefer the latter, however this is not the point.)

In either case, there are ways to preserve Mr. C’s privacy to varying degrees, from complete anonymity to revealing the medical condition only to health-care personnel to showing it on the smartphone screen in the shape of a colored QR code as is being done in China.

I believe that using a pure, scalable, and secure Blockchain application as an add-on to smartphone software for Coronavirus contact-tracing does add value, whether users are in full control of their inputs or not.

So what?

A blockchain application can be a powerful complement to mobile contact tracing software, and it is likely to be adopted in some countries to handle future pandemics – which will not be lacking for sure.

Already now, however, executives in public-service organizations should ensure that such solutions are discussed at the highest levels and perhaps adopted.

Large organizations of all kinds may evaluate the technology, including in simpler forms such as those based on blockchain-inspired platforms, as a complement for managing contact-tracing within their ecosystems.

Viral testing and contact-tracing (T&T) are part of a wider basket of measures for fighting the pandemic. However, countries that have proven most effective at T&T are best positioned to suffer the minimum possible damage from Covid19:

enterprises should include this factor into their international strategies and tactics.

2020 PAOLO MAGRASSI CC BY 4.0

I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I have no vested interest in any of the products, firms, or institutions mentioned in this post. Nor does the Analyst Syndicate.