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Since it has become apparent that contact tracing apps to be used on smartphones have several drawbacks, it is wise to investigate alternatives. When looking at tracking and tracing in logistics, such an alternative might be anonymous COVID-19 contact tracing using physical tokens.

An outline of a possible system is described. EIT Digital called on researchers, innovators, entrepreneurs, industry players and policymakers to contribute with their creativeness, technology and supply chain expertise to come with concrete proposals that can contribute to the further design and development of such alternative, COVID-19 contact tracing system using physical tokens. More than 60 expressions of interest were submitted and are now bundled into consortia that will work on concrete pilots. As part of the EIT’s Crisis Response Initiative, this activity directly contributes to the European Union’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

CONTACT TRACING PURPOSE AND REQUIREMENTS

To effectively contain virus outbreaks, it is essential to quickly reach (possibly) infected individuals in order to prevent them from spreading the virus. Speed is vital given the exponential spreading of viruses. Reaching individuals that have been in contact with persons tested positive is an essential part of the overall approach. Once these individuals have been reached, they can get themselves tested. Thus, contact tracing is only part of the overall approach to contain virus outbreaks. Given that manual contact tracing is labour intensive and slow, institutions and authorities are looking for technological solutions.

The purpose of any technological contact tracing solution is to reach (possibly) infected individuals in order to inform them so they can get themselves tested and if needed go into quarantine to avoid further spreading of the virus.

This is key to the design of a contact tracing system. The role of the contact tracing system is only and exclusively to reach individuals that have been in contact with infected persons. Not more. This principle of focussing on the essence is key and well known as Occam’s razor. As a consequence, there isfor example no need for the tracing system to know the identity of citizens. Which is a key ingredient in achieving anonymity and thus user acceptance.

There is broad consensus on the so-called non-functional requirements any technological solution should fulfil. These are anonymity, voluntariness, transparency, security, temporality, and interoperability.

To summarize, the challenge is to have a system that allows to quickly inform (possibly) infected individuals that they have been in contact with an infected person while observing the aforementioned non-functional requirements.

TRACING USING PHYSICAL TOKENS

Physical tokens have only the minimal functionality needed for contact tracing (Occam’s razor) which has, for this specific purpose of contact tracing, several advantages over smartphone apps

  • they are small, robust, cheap, and consume little energy
  • their proximity technologies could include Bluetooth, but also the more accurate UltraWideBand
  • their simplicity, single application, and ‘not always on’ allow for high levels of security

Being able to use the more accurate UltraWideBand on physical tokens may also address another challenge that is identified with smartphone solutions, that of the accuracy of Bluetooth. Unfortunately, UltraWideBand is not available on the average smartphone.

Next to that, physical tokens are proven technology in the logistics domain with established players and well-functioning ecosystems which allows for technical sovereignty.

The beauty of the system is that it allows both for local as well as gradual deployment, which means that after testing and piloting in restricted locations, such as factory plants or even ports, larger deployment can also be foreseen in critical areas and areas at risk. Further gradual deployment could cities, regions and even country-wide as well as cross-border distribution.

Physical tokens will have to be produced and distributed. Setting up production and distribution in Europe of physical tokens will take time, however, based on the existing production and supply chains, European countries should be able to bring physical tokens to their citizens in relevant time.

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