MIT PACT Initiates Bluetooth & Smartphone Tech to Enable Anonymous COVID-19 Contact Tracing

MIT PACT Initiates Bluetooth & Smartphone Tech to Enable Anonymous COVID-19 Contact Tracing

MIT’s Private Automatic Contact Tracing (PACT) team is leveraging the Bluetooth functionality of smartphones based on short-range data strings known as “chirps” that the phones use to connect with other devices. In this way, the research seeks to turn individuals’ smartphones into tools for automatic COVID-19 contact tracing.

TrialSite News helps breakdown the topic here.

What is MIT’s PACT?

MIT’s PACT is a group that has come together to use mobile technology (including Bluetooth) to slow the spread of COVID-19 using the collaborative power of privacy preserving contact tracing. The full project description can be found here.

What is the objective of the MIT researchers here?

The MIT researchers hope to enable an individual’s smartphone (if they enable) to continuously send out random data strings and hence maintain a log from other participating devices that individual’s phone has encountered.

Why is this relevant?

Well, let us say a user gets diagnosed with COVID-19 by a healthcare professional. In that case they would receive a QR code that notifies the system of their positive status and uploads their list of received chirps.

What does this enable?

Now all of the other participants in such a network can initiate a scan of the collective logs any time via their own app. If any of their outbound chirps match an instance maintained in the cloud platform used to manage all the data, they would be warned of a potential, yet still anonymous, COVID-19 contact.

Powerful (and Scary?) Tracking of Disease via Digital Smartphone Network

Moving forward, all of those participating in such a network can initiate a scan at any time of the shared logs via the app on their smartphone, and be warned of a potential (yet anonymous) COVID-19 contact. This powerful COVID-19 tracking network also maintains data points of how close people in the network are in relation to each other. This means that an individual can assess how close someone is that has COVID-19 is near them. The system can also tell the individual how much time they spent in range of the person with the COVID-19 contact.

Competitive Differentiation

The MIT PACT system has some competitive advantages over other automated contact-tracing or behavior tracing initiatives. For example, the PACT network requires little data collection which represents a simple but compelling advantage. Also, Bluetooth-enabled smartphones maintain a record of chirps sent and received. Moreover, the software database backing the system requires only outbound chips associated with a positive case’s device. No data location is needed, but rather only a one-way log of unique contact events completed by a paired from the second device.

PACT Project Instigator

The PACT project was led by Ron Rivest who noted to the MIT press, “I keep track of what I’ve broadcasted, and you keep track of what you’ve heard, and this will allow us to tell someone was in close proximity to an infected person.” He continued, “But for these broadcasts, we’re using cryptographic techniques to generate random, rotating numbers that are not just anonymous, but pseudonymous, constantly changing their ‘ID’ and that can’t be traced back to an individual.”

What Problem does this Possibly Solve?

Public health systems presently depend on manual contact-tracking efforts which are cumbersome, labor-intensive, and not practical given the magnitude and scope of the COVID-19 pandemic. A system such as this automated one could help with that burden and represent an efficient and effective way to notify officials of incidental contact that the infected person may not be able to recall, or in many cases may not have been aware of.

Dr. Louise Ivers, executive director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Global Health and an advisor to the MIT project, told MIT’s press outlet, “In order for the U.S. to really contain this epidemic, we need to have a much more proactive approach that allows us to trace more widely contacts for confirmed cases.” Dr. Ivers continued, “This automated and privacy-protecting approach could really transform our ability to get this epidemic under control here and could be adapted to have us use in other global settings.”

Bigger Picture

Internationally, some countries are either investigating or implementing smartphone-based network approaches to tracking the COVID-19 situation—most often these networks are GPS-based. Here in the U.S. at one-point former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb raised the idea of a GPS-cellphone tracking app to monitor whether individuals stay at home on quarantine, reported Mobile Health News. More recently, this same person signed on to a Duke Center for Health Policy working paper calling for “timely contact tracing…augmented by technology” to “cell phone-based apps recording proximity events between individuals” considering a number of factors including privacy and even security issues, reported Mobile Health News.

Call to Action: Want to down load the app? Upon launch you can check out MIT’s SafePaths.