The pandemic has struck the world very hard. Global economies have come to a standstill and people all over the world are falling victim to unemployment and hunger. Nobody knows when this crisis is going to end. Till the April 16, 210 countries and territories around the world have reported a total of 2,100,970 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 and a death toll of 136,048 deaths.
Countries around the world have taken several steps such as extensive lockdown, closing borders, enforcing social distancing, etc, to suppress the spread of the pandemic. Evidently, these measures have affected the economy and the longer we are in lockdown the harder will be the hit taken by the economy.
Even if one country successfully flattens the Covid-19 curve, they have to wait until other countries do the same to open up borders. Otherwise, one infected person coming from a different country could unleash a second wave of contagion in the country. How long will we have to stay in lockdown? How long until the borders are open again? How long until everything is normal again? Nobody knows.
How Possibly Can We Overcome This?
Phases from discovering a potential drug for Covid-19, getting government approval, mass production and distribution, we are looking at a delay of several months until the drug reaches the global market. So it’s vital for us to keep tabs open for other possible solutions that can curb the pandemic.
Another potential solution to overcome this situation is by enabling a health-card based access system for the citizens. For this, governments need to do extensive automated contact tracing and exposure analysis of citizens and issue digital health-cards to represent their risk level for having Covid-19 infection. When health cards are facilitated, people with ‘no risk’ health-card shall be allowed to travel, access facilities, etc.
Several organizations and startups have come up with solutions and technologies to fight Covid-19. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came up with a protocol for Bluetooth proximity based contact tracing, the Singapore government’s TraceTogether application is another example.
From the startup space, Accubits Technologies, India based startup came up with a pandemic management system named as RebuildTheChain, which can enable governments to automate the contact tracing and exposure analysis of citizens and thereby issue digital health cards.
Even if such systems are in place, there are multiple hurdles to overcome, such as data privacy of the users, interoperability between different countries, etc. In reading forward, we’ll see how such a pandemic management system can flatten the Covid-19 curve without compromising the data privacy of citizens.
Privacy-Preserving Contact Tracing And Exposure Analysis
The purpose of contact tracing is to identify the people who have come in close contact with an infected person. Pandemic management systems such as RebuildTheChain rely on Bluetooth proximity data for contact tracing. When a person installs the application, the Bluetooth of their smartphone starts broadcasting random codes (a.k.a chirps) to nearby Bluetooth devices.
The nearby Bluetooth devices capture these chirps and log them into the application. Likewise, all smartphones under close proximity share chirp between each other. The chirp code broadcasted by a device is changed when a change in GPS location is detected by the app.
When a person is tested positive for the disease, health authorities or government agencies can request the person to upload the list of broadcasted chirps from the application. These chirp codes from all infected people will be uploaded to a common database.
Every citizens’ application checks with this common database to see if any of the listed chirps matches with the logged received chirps in the application. If there is a match, the application will notify the user about the potential contact with an asymptomatic carrier and alert them to contact health officials via the app.
A similar methodology can be used for exposure analysis as well. GPS data of a user is recorded and logged within the application. When multiple infection cases are reported from a particular location, the government labels that location as a hot zone.
Every citizen’s application checks with the common database of hot zones to see if any of the listed locations matches the logged location data in the application. If there is a match, the application will notify the user about the potential exposure to the hot zone and alert them to contact health officials via the app.
These two methodologies, when combined together, enables governments to do contact tracing and exposure analysis without compromising the data privacy of citizens.
Interoperability And Overseas Travel
Automated contact tracing and exposure analysis can help a country to flatten the curve. But, for the country to open up borders, they should be confident that none of the incoming travelers are infected with COVID. For that, it is essential to store the citizens’ health status data of every country or at least a consortium of countries in a common database.
Obviously, storing all data in a common DB would raise data security concerns. No country would agree to store their citizens’ data in a server located in a different country simply because they don’t trust each other. This is where the importance of decentralized ledger technology comes into play.
As defined by Investopedia, A distributed ledger is a database that is consensually shared and synchronized across multiple sites, institutions or geographies. It allows transactions to have public “witnesses,” thereby making a cyberattack more difficult. The participant at each node of the network can access the recordings shared across that network and can own an identical copy of it.
World countries or a consortium of countries can open up borders for each other based on a health-card based access system. Blockchain technology can facilitate the consortium to do the following:
- No country has ownership of the data, but data is distributed among all members of the consortium.
- Citizen data stored in the network is encrypted and a private key is required to access
- A citizen is the only custodian of their private key.
- No one can access a particular citizen’s data without the permission of the citizen.
How such a system works, is explained in the infographic below.
By automating contact tracing and exposure analysis, and by leveraging blockchain technology to enable a secure channel for cross border access of citizen health cards, governments stand a chance to bring the economy up and running during a pandemic.