Efforts to make contact tracing technology available on wearables

Companies are collaborating to extend the reach of Bluetooth exposure notification systems beyond smartphones.
By Tammy Lovell
05:12 am
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Work is underway to create a specification which would enable wearable devices to utilise COVID-19 contact tracing technology.

More than 130 Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) member companies have joined a working group, which aims to define a standardised method to add wearables to the existing smartphone-based Exposure Notification System (ENS), while preserving privacy and security protections.

The working group serves as a centralised forum for discussion on the effective use of Bluetooth technology in slowing the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.

By extending the ENS to include wearables, such as wristbands, the technology could better address population groups where smartphone usage remains low, such as primary school aged children and older adults living in care facilities.

An initial draft of the specification is expected to be released and available for review within the next few months.

WHY IT MATTERS

All public ENSs to date have used Bluetooth technology already embedded in smartphones to notify people when they have been in contact with someone who was later diagnosed with COVID-19. However, smartphones alone are not a practical approach to cover all segments of the population and wearables could offer an alternative. 

THE LARGER CONTEXT

Public health authorities worldwide are using ENSs to support their contact tracing efforts, with the system created jointly by Google and Apple being employed in apps released by at least 16 countries including AustriaGermanySwitzerland and most recently in England

But the technology has faced privacy concerns, with the New York Times reporting that location data is still collected on Android phones, despite the tech giants insisting it does not track users’ whereabouts.

Norway's contact tracing app has also run into privacy issues and was temporarily banned in May after concerns were raised by the Norwegian Data Protection Authority. 

ON THE RECORD

Elisa Resconi, a professor at the Technical University of Munich, leading research on the spread of COVID-19, said: “There are several population groups critical to managing the spread of diseases like COVID-19 with relatively low smartphone penetration, presenting a coverage challenge for smartphone-based ENSs. We believe including wearable devices in an ENS would be a very effective method for extending its reach to support these important groups.”

Mark Powell, CEO of the Bluetooth SIG, said: “It is incredibly inspiring to see the Bluetooth community’s collaboration in finding and creating innovative ways to leverage Bluetooth technology to address the COVID-19 pandemic. We are grateful for the dedication and commitment of the Bluetooth members and proud of their work on this important effort.”

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