In brief

  • MIT privacy experts have launched an app to stop the spread of coronavirus,
  • It tells you if you've crossed paths with someone who is infected.
  • Unlike other initiatives, it protects your data.

Privacy experts from MIT have launched an application that tells you if you’ve crossed paths with a coronavirus patient—without sacrificing your privacy. 

Safepaths imports location data and timestamps from a user’s Google Account. Information is collected every five minutes. 

The app could help stop the spread of coronavirus. Image: Shutterstock.

This lets the app work out whether someone has crossed paths with a diagnosed patient. If you’ve crossed paths with someone who’s tested positive for coronavirus, the app will notify you. 

The creators of the MIT app—which is still in pilot—claim that it is the first application designed for tracking the coronavirus that puts privacy first.

People who’ve tested positive for the coronavirus can choose to provide location trails to health officials, but the information on the location trail that’s broadcasted to others is blurred and redacted. For healthy users, such information never even leaves their phone.

The app isn’t the first to attempt this kind of thing; Alipay Health, an application that also tracked location data, was critical to China’s containment of the coronavirus. 

Some governments are already tracking location data to work out whether people are complying with lockdowns. Italy is collecting cell phone location data from telecommunications providers to work out whether people are staying at home.

And since March 16, the Shin Bet, Israel’s foremost security service, has collected phone location data to instruct people to stay at home if the government thinks they’ve been in contact with someone who’s tested positive for the coronavirus. 

Beat to the punch

MIT’s wrong on one count: It isn’t the only company working on a privacy solution. In fact, blockchain got there first, as Decrypt previously reported

Elastos DMA, a Shanghai-based blockchain firm, is building an app that logs users’ health information on the blockchain, it announced earlier this month. 

The app, called GreenPass, encrypts location information and stores it the hash of that data on the blockchain. 

Still, if governments can’t be relied upon to keep citizens safe without sacrificing privacy, then the more the merrier.