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July 16, 2020

Privacy-preserving contact tracing wearables: Powerful tools to fight against Covid-19

By GlobalData Healthcare

Wearable technology has been used in order to track contact, predict symptoms, and monitor patients during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to GlobalData analysis, the wearable tech market is expected to increase from nearly $27B in 2019 to $64B by 2024, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 19%. Several digital contact tracing devices are available or under development to help limit the spread of Covid-19. Wearables developers focus on the applications that are accurate, energy-efficient, and most importantly, protect the privacy of users.

Digital contact tracing tools are force-multipliers that will simplify processes involved in re-opening businesses and public service. Wearable technology can track contact rapidly and notify of the potential of Covid-19 exposure. Meanwhile, wearables can help users follow social distancing requirements, which limit the spread of Covid-19. Governments around the world have taken similar approaches to develop contact tracing technology. The main concern of using technology has centred on privacy. Personal data including health information and social activities can be accessed and potentially exploited. Additionally, since wearables often collected data using cloud storage systems, they can be vulnerable to cyberattack. Algorithms to prevent unauthorised third parties from accessing devices should be reinforced. Wearables manufacturers should invest in cybersecurity and ensure solid data protection procedures are in place to reduce this barrier.

One way to protect personal data from abuse is not to collect them, to begin with. Researchers at Stanford University and the University of Waterloo in Canada have developed Covid Watch, which allows notification of those exposed to infected persons, while also protecting the privacy of users. Instead of informing a central authority of Covid-19 exposure status, the app works by notifying others who may have been exposed directly to Covid-19 anonymously. University of Arizona officials announced that they plan to introduce the app to students and staff members, enabling them to notify the school community of potential exposure to Covid-19 when the school reopens in the fall.

Some devices work independently without smartphones to ensure privacy and security. They are useful for monitoring social distancing for business settings, enhancing the sense of security when coming back to the workplace. Examples of wearables include Nodle, Coalition Network, and Avnet’s Nodle M1, which tracks distance and buzzes employees to let them know when they are too close to one another, and artitalia and SensorID’s ‘Close-to-me,’ a wearable device that monitors social distancing of two or more people in the same room. There are currently very limited data on the performance of the devices, and there remain gaps that could pose challenges to their adoption. For example, they require that almost everyone in a community is using the same type of devices to be effective.

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