India mandates workers use COVID-19 tracing app, France rolls out tracing tool and other tracking efforts

Also Chinese startup develops smartglasses that can detect temperature.
By Laura Lovett
02:16 pm
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This month has kicked off with a slew of announcements about tracing efforts. From India’s new policy requiring all workers to download its government app to China’s new fever-senseing glasses, governments are looking for ways to keep tabs on the virus. 

As of today, all Indian employers are responsible for making sure their domestic employees – in both the public and private sector, download a government-run tracing app that is aimed to help track the spread of the coronavirus, ETtech India reported. The new platform called Aarogya Setu was designed to inform users about their risk of infection, as well as alert public health officials. Users can access the tool in 11 languages. 

“It shall be the responsibility of the Head of the respective Organizations to ensure 100% coverage of this app among the employees,” India’s Ministry of Home Affairs wrote in the order

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The app will also be required in “Containment Zones” or hot spots where the virus is most prominent. Here the local authorities are responsible for enforcing the use of the app. 

Currently India has 39,980 confirmed coronavirus cases. Unlike the US and the bulk of Western Europe, it is still not classified as having community transmission, but rather a cluster of cases, according to the World Health Organization. However, the number of cases in India continues to grow, and several critics point out that the number of tests conducted in the country are some of the lowest rates in the world

In France, where there are now close to 130,000 coronavirus cases, the government plans to roll out its new tracing app next week, Reuters reported. Dubbed StopCOVID, the new Bluetooth-enabled app will use a centralized approach to tracing. Instead of tracking GPS location, it will use the Bluetooth to detect when two phones come close to one another. 

Lastly, while it may not be exactly tracing, China is looking into being able to gain a little more data on its population's helath through tech. Chinese tech startup Rokid built a new pair of augmented reality-enabled glasses that are able to calculate a person’s temperature from a distance, according to Reuters. The Chinese government has already purchased 1,000 for its public employees. 

The company has previously dipped into manufacturing, entertainment and health. 

WHY IT MATTERS 

The number of coronavirus cases continues to grow, now surpassing three million, according to the WHO. This has sent scores of countries and US states into lockdown mode. However, as some countries overcome this first peak, governments and business are starting to look for the best course of action when reopening, and tracing is a hot topic. 

While many governments are pursing this technology as a way to get back to a form of normalcy, there is still a lot of debate around the tools. A new review published by the Ada Lovelace Institute in the United Kingdom said that its research points to significant technical limitations and social risk in employing such tools. 

“Contact tracing apps collect and combine two highly sensitive categories of information: location and health status,” Ryan Calo, a professor of law at the University of Washington, and Kinsa CEO Inder Singh, said during a U.S. Senate committee hearing on big data and privacy protections. “It seems fair to wonder whether these apps, developed by small teams, will be able to keep such sensitive information private and secure. To the extent digital contact tracing – or any private, technology-driven response to the pandemic – involves the sharing of healthcare data with private parties, there is also the specter of inadequate transparency or consent.”

THE LARGER TREND 

Here in the US we’ve seen two of our biggest tech companies, Apple and Google, collaborate on a contact-tracing tool. The pair plan on creating APIs that will enable interoperability between iOS and Android products by way of official apps from public health authorities. 

In the longer term, the two companies have committed to building a Bluetooth-based contact-tracing functionality into their underlying operating systems. 

The public still awaits this release. However, this morning the pair gave Reuters a little bit more information about the new tool. The companies will not be using GPS location. Instead, like the French tool, they will also use Bluetooth technology to detect whether two phones are close. 

While this effort made headlines internationally, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Last week the U.K. announced that it would not be using Apple and Google’s contact-tracing tool, as originally planned, according to the BBC. Apple and Google’s model pitches a decentralized system for tracing, while the NHSX – which works on the UK’s digital health efforts – is proposing a centralized system.