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MIT team races to perfect cellphone tracing of coronavirus - Boston Herald
MIT scientists are racing to harness Bluetooth technology to boost contact tracing of the coronavirus. This revolution in cellphone technology is being launched in Massachusetts, with MIT’s L…
The smartphone could help the world get back to work. MIT’s Daniel J. Weitzner Courtesy MIT MIT scientists are racing to harness Bluetooth technology to boost contact tracing of the coronavirus. This revolution in cellphone technology is being launched in Massachusetts, with MIT’s Lincoln Labs in Lexington playing a crucial part. “The phone could save your life,” MIT’s Danny Weitzner, co-principal investigator of the Private Automated Contact Tracing (PACT) project, told the Herald. Both Apple and Google have signed on, announcing Friday they are all in until the pandemic is over. The tech giants stressed “user privacy” is paramount, but so, too, is uniting against the killer COVID-19. “This is a task for humanity to fight back against this virus,” MIT’s Ron Rivest told a panel of experts Zoomed-in this past week to brainstorm. He is PACT’s principal investigator, who Weitzner credited for dreaming up the idea of using Bluetooth technology anonymously to help trace coronavirus cases once the surge is over. Rivest is a cryptographer a developer of algorithms, ciphers and security systems to encrypt sensitive information who is challenging fellow academics and cellphone engineers to put the devices to work to help public health officials. MIT’s Ron Rivest (Courtesy MIT) The idea is to have the 270 million cellphone users in the U.S. voluntarily download system upgrades to their Apple and Android phones to allow proximity tracing. The technology would alert users if they came too close to someone who had recently tested positive for coronavirus. That would allow public health officials to quickly move to isolate potential new cases of the virus and stop new outbreaks. Apple and Google say the technology embedded in an app will be ready in May with users needing to “consent to the terms and conditions before the program is active.” But that’s just step one, Apple and Google added. “In the second phase, available in the coming months, this capability will be introduced at the operating system level to help ensure broad adoption, which is vital to the success of contact tracing,” the companies state in their release. Gov. Charlie Baker launched the nation’s first contact tracing program that’s being hailed as a model for the nation, as the Herald previously reported. It’s the same approach used to contain Ebola. Baker urged the MIT team during this past week’s video conference to hit the ground running to help hunt down all new cases of COVID-19 as states look to open up the economy. “This is not just an issue for Massachusetts, it’s not just an issue for the country, it’s frankly an issue for the world,” Baker said from his State House office. “This is an unprecedented time. There’s no playbook here. … but we’re not running away from the virus.” The key, panelists said, is robust testing of those suspected of having the virus; getting “boots on the ground” to track down those infected; using technology to aid in that tracing and assuring everyone their privacy will be protected. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a leading member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said privacy concerns remain a sticky, sticky” issue. He added during an interview on Snapchat, according to The Washington Post, that cellphone tracing could alert someone that they were “next to these 25 people over the last 24 hours. Boy, I gotta tell you, the civil liberties-type pushback on that would be considerable. Israel, Taiwan, Germany, South Korea, China, Britain and others are already using cellphones to help trace COVID-19 cases. Weitzner stressed that one month into the project, they know only one thing matters: Make a solution available “to the whole world.” And do it fast. “If we can help control the spread of infection,” he added, “it’s good for everyone.”