Written By:

John Hurley

Chief Product Manager – VAS & Signalling Security


There has been considerable comment in the media about the use of mobile technology to assist in the measures to track the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Most such schemes involve the use of an app which continuously records the locations of all phones running it on a central server, thus enabling immediate contact tracing for users subsequently diagnosed with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Some Asian countries (Singapore and South Korea) have reported that mobile-app based contact tracing helped them to quickly get spread of the virus under control.

In China, where the WeChat application is already ubiquitous and is being harnessed for public health purposes, the approach has been different.

However, the adoption of such technologies and their efficacy in different regions is not without its challenges as identified by John Hurley, Chief Product Manager (VAS & Signalling Security) at Enghouse Networks and the most sophisticated solution may not always be the best.


Data Mining vs. Privacy

In Western Countries, Mobile Network Operators have, for several years, been caught between the seemingly opposing imperatives of a) mining data from the network about customers and b) safeguarding subscribers’ privacy. Big Data solutions promise to extract all sorts of insights from the data generated by the mobile network about the usage and habits of subscribers, while regulations such as GDPR aim to protect the privacy of citizens from unnecessary retention of their data by organizations commercial or otherwise.

Consumer bodies in the West are increasingly concerned about the unintelligible EULA contracts Mobile Apps expect users to accept and the range of permissions these grant the developers over the user’s communications and data.

This dilemma has been thrown centre stage, once again, with the emergence of SARS-CoV-2.

Some medical experts have argued that limiting the spread of a pandemic takes priority over individual rights to privacy and if tracking citizens’ location and encounters helps, then it should be done. However, Singapore has shown that individual privacy need not be compromised.

Singapore’s TraceTogether app has been designed with privacy in mind, collecting only anonymized codes shared via Bluetooth, storing them on the phone for 21 days and uploading data from the phone, only if the user is identified as a “close contact” of an infected user.

The Government of Singapore has pledged to make the app available as Opensource code to enable other countries to also fight the spread.


Trust and Freedom of Choice

How effective can such a service be? Is it too late to start using it now?

All such app-based services depend on users having suitable phones and opting in.

This means downloading an app, providing it with minimal personal information and running Bluetooth constantly.

For it to be effective, there needs to be a critical mass of users in the particular population or country and there must be coordination between the app provider and the virus testing service.

Infected users must be given a sequence of codes to enter following a positive diagnosis to share their app data.

Users must trust the authorities not to use the app to spy on them. In turn users must be trusted to do the right thing when they receive their diagnosis and when they receive a notification that they have been in close contact.

Singapore has set a great example with their preparedness for such a pandemic and the application’s sensitivity to personal privacy, but can less prepared countries benefit from this now?

Singapore differs greatly from many countries based on its GDP per capita, geographic spread, technological infrastructure, political system and stability.

Many other countries may struggle to quickly achieve the critical mass of use that Singapore did, but this is no reason for them not to try.

In the meantime, there are other, less sophisticated, mobile technologies that may also be used to encourage good behaviour and prevent the spread of the disease.


Wireless Public Alerting

All mobile network operators have systems that show the concentration of subscribers in the various “cells” of their networks. They use these systems to identify when cells resources need to be adjusted.

In many countries, social distancing measures were introduced as the first buds of Spring were appearing. Without consciously flouting restrictions, many people flocked to well-known beauty spots and amenities and suddenly found themselves in dense concentrations with total strangers.

The build-up of such concentrations can be detected and even predicted using the technology of the mobile network and it could be reversed using public alert messages targeted at a broad radius from the centre.

There is no need to imagine Big Brother behind such a solution. Because Cell Broadcast campaigns are targeted at regions rather than individual phones, the phone numbers and identities of those who receive them are neither required nor recorded.


Is it an Emergency Yet?

Together with ETSI, the EU has defined a standard for such solutions called EU-Alert based on Cell Broadcast, a technology-supported (but rarely implemented) in all wireless networks.

In November 2018 the EU Commission issued a directive for all member countries to implement Wireless Public Alerting systems by 2022 but individual countries have been slow to act.

The fact that each country’s Telecoms regulator can specify their own variant of the system has not helped.

Some countries such as the Netherlands, Greece, Lithuania and Romania had already implemented solutions. Sweden and Belgium had implemented systems based on SMS (which, of necessity, entails tracking subscribers’ locations).

Otherwise, public alerting systems, which support a great many uses, are conspicuously lacking across the EU.

The USA, in contrast, launched its CMAS system nationwide in 2012 and Canada’s WPAS system went live in 2018. Japan, New Zealand, Israel and Chile have had systems for several years.

In fact, the Canadian authorities have already been using WPAS to promote social distancing:

The concept of EU Alert is to provide an authoritative source for the mass distribution of information and advice in case of an emergency.

In its absence, the vacuum is filled in many cases by social media, which is notoriously prone to misinformation and hoaxes.

Perhaps an app-based approach is, after all, closer to reality for most European citizens and it will be their individual decisions to opt-in that will determine its success.


How Enghouse can Help?

Emergency Warning System is a standards-based, wireless public alerting system from Enghouse Networks. With delivery channels for Cell Broadcast, SMS and Push Notifications, GIS and mapping technologies for creating, scheduling and launching geo-targeted and geo-fenced campaigns and standard interfaces (CAP, CMAS, WPAS) for the inbound campaigns from authorized agencies, EWS provides a complete alerting solution, whether for individual telcos or national initiatives.

For more information, contact us.