MIT and makers of the app Private Kit: Safe Paths say they’ve overcome an Android and iOS interoperability issue that will make the COVID-19 contact tracking app able to track people in close proximity with others using Bluetooth. MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory says it accomplished the feat last week.

Currently, Private Kit logs location history using GPS for 28 days. Bluetooth proximity apps record when two devices running the app are near each other, and when a person tests positive for COVID-19, notifications can be sent to people who crossed their path. Safe Paths will soon be able to share any incidences of contact between two people that have occurred within 14 days.

Project lead and MIT associate professor Ramesh Raskar said the Private Kit: Safe Paths team is currently in talks with over 30 countries, including India, Italy, Germany, and Vietnam. An MIT spokesperson said Private Kit pilots are also underway in a number of countries, including Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom, as well as five locations across the U.S. — from Alaska to Los Angeles and an area outside Boston.

The Private Kit: Safe Paths team is also in ongoing negotiations and talks with the World Health Organization and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Safe Paths is a platform to create completely interoperable standards. So we expect most apps to be based on the safe paths repository,” he said. “And in case Brazil creates one and Mexico creates one, and so on, [for] anyone who travels from one country to another, it’s the same base for everyone because we don’t expect Brazil to use an MIT app.”

Private Kit is also working with makers of other Bluetooth tracing apps, like COVID Watch, on an open source offering that ensures Bluetooth pings picked up by one app are seen by others.

Bluetooth proximity tracing apps must overcome interoperability issues before being considered a viable solution for recording instances when a person may contract COVID-19.

Privacy is also a primary concern.

“So the healthy people never have to share their data, but for infected people, they can release that data in an anonymized, aggregated, and redacted fashion. The next version will be encrypted as well,” Raskar said.

The makers of Bluetooth contact tracing apps say if the solution gains widespread adoption, it could be part of the way some countries or regions allow people to return to normal life in a world without a cure for COVID-19.

Private Kit builders include makers of FluPhone, MIT Alliance for Distributed and Private Machine Learning, members of MIT Media Lab, and MIT CSAIL’s Ron Rivest, cocreator of the RSA algorithm and symmetric key encryption algorithms. MIT also worked with Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Global Health, Boston University, Brown University, the Weizmann Institute of Science, and SRI International.

In addition to allowing people to follow proximity tracing today, creators say Private Kit: Safe Paths is intended to act as a proof of concept for Apple and Google, dominant controllers of mobile operating systems around the world.

“They have a critical role here. The aim of the prototype is to prove to these developers that this is feasible for them to implement,” Rivest said in a statement shared with VentureBeat.

In recent days, U.S. senators have questioned Apple and Google over the privacy implications of COVID-19 surveillance.

Engineers who built Private Kit were advised by a medical advisory team led by Louise Ivers, an infectious disease expert and executive director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Global Health. Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms head and deep learning expert Yoshua Bengio also contributed as an advisor.

Since the launch of its Android and iOS app roughly one month ago, Safe Paths has been downloaded more than 10,000 times.


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