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Are our existing technologies capable of producing data that is accurate enough for our needs right now? That’s the big question technologists are wrestling with right now as Apple and Google seek to use bluetooth technology, which is over two decades old, as the basis for contact-tracing COVID-19. Will this technology be effective in providing us with the data we need to feel safe to return to some semblance of normalcy? Or will we need to turn to something else like network-based contact tracing? Let’s examine how each technology would work and which method would be best for moving forward.
Contact Tracing and Bluetooth: How It Works
Theoretically, Bluetooth will measure the distance between two phones using a signal to determine a “contact event.” Once someone tests positive for coronavirus, an alert can be sent to those believed to have been in close proximity to that person, letting them of the potential risk. In addition, assisted GPS (AGPS) will likely be used to help triangulate location and trace the whereabouts of the person for the past 14 days. It could even be used to collect data geographically, for instance creating data sets that alert individuals traveling through the country when they are entering a high-risk infection zone—say, the local Starbucks or Target store. All of that sounds great—but it fails to take into consideration a few significant limitations of Bluetooth technology.
The Problem with Bluetooth in Contact Tracing
While most of the country’s conspiracy theorists are worried that contract-tracing will put a nail in the coffin of privacy in America, there is a bigger problem at hand when it comes to using Bluetooth for the tracing of coronavirus infections. Namely: there are some very significant issues with the way it tracks location:
- Bluetooth has difficulty reading the proximity of a signal through clothing, physical barriers, and even human flesh. For instance, two people standing back to back would theoretically be within six feet of one another and fail to signal an interaction because their bodies are too dense for Bluetooth to recognize it.
- Bluetooth signals vary depending on portrait or landscape mode. Thus, if someone is viewing a movie, their phone may ping a weaker signal and fail to acknowledge a contact.
- Bluetooth is located in our phones. And obviously—we aren’t always holding them.
- Bluetooth relies on users to download a contract tracing app and self-report if they are sick. (And let’s face it: with the privacy concerns already being raised about contact tracing, there will likely be a fair number who refuse to partake.)
Altogether, the issues lead many to believe Bluetooth may actually cause more harm than good, at best racking up tons of false positives and at worse, completely missing the mark.
Contact Tracing and Networks: How it Works
Another option would be to use network-based contact tracing which also uses a form of Bluetooth technology. When we go into our regularly visited places like the office, our phones often automatically connect to the network. Theoretically we could use our phones and devices as giant beacons on the network to track and monitor employees. Cisco DNA Spaces is a location-based service that provides behavioral insights on users. Colleges, retail spaces, healthcare, and manufacturing have all found use cases for the technology using it to track attendance in classrooms, monitor customer behavior and patterns in stores, and monitor the use of critical equipment.
In the workplace, it could be used to monitor occupancy and track employee movements to help manage reintroducing employees into the office. It also could be used to trigger alerts for any employee who has come in contact with someone infected with the virus or what areas of the office to avoid if deep cleaning is necessary.
Manageable Limitations with Network-Based Tracking
With network-based tracking there is also the issue of privacy. In the case of Cisco DNA Spaces, the company guarantees that only non-sensitive personal information is collected from the network address of a device. Identifiable data such as race, ethnicity or gender are not collected since it’s only monitoring your device.
However a bigger problem remains: you have to be connected to the network for the data collection to work. Just like with the Bluetooth tracking issue, if you’re not carrying your device you won’t be tracked, but if you’re in an office building you likely always have a device around you.
Another issue would be managing networking connectivity to handle all the devices and data being collected. Companies would need to be prepared for a potential increase in bandwidth requirements if the data is stored on-prem. Many companies already expanded network capabilities when the pandemic first broke out so this could be a very manageable issue if a network was built to scale.
The Options Moving Forward
The good news is that we’re aware of the limitations for both Bluetooth and networks, and the big tech companies are working to find solutions to the issues that could emerge with contact tracing. And honestly, these are the best options we have right now, unless we wanted to go a much more intrusive route with location monitoring bracelets like some countries in Asia. I can’t imagine anyone in America is ready for that kind of tracking, however reliable it may be. So, for now, we need to accept the limitations of these two technologies and make the most of it.
Is it possible Bluetooth will elicit false positives or negatives once we begin to use it? Yes. Of course. This is, after all, the first time our country is experimenting in contact-tracing of any kind, and it’s safe to say many are hesitant to allow the government to track their information on this level. Will Bluetooth also incur some privacy breaches due to its newly-found popularity? Of course. Hackers will be hungry to jump on a technology that demands highly personal information at such a large scale.
Is it possible Bluetooth is the best option we currently have to fight coronavirus? Yes. For now. Companies are already finding unique ways to improve the technology, such as creating business-specific wearables to track possible infection among employees. This can only help businesses get more comfortable with the new task of not just evolving with digital transformation, but using technology to keep their workforce safe—pandemic and all.
Futurum Research provides industry research and analysis. These columns are for educational purposes only and should not be considered in any way investment advice.
The original version of this article was first published on Forbes.