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In the United States, Apple and Google have developed a privacy-respecting Covid-19 contact tracing system

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In the United States, Virginia has enabled the appless Covid-19 contact notification service for iPhone users, joining California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, Washington, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia. This means that iPhone users in these US states don’t need to install the contact notification app, instead they can turn on notifications in their phone settings.

These services use the coronavirus contact notification system for iOS and Android, which are smartphone operating systems jointly built by Apple and Google, and both companies have updated to work without the app. The system uses ubiquitous Bluetooth short-range wireless communication technology.

As of January, 20 US states and the District of Columbia were using the system for contact notification apps and appless services. All apps and services are voluntary. However, on Maui, Hawaii, visitors are required to use Maui.

Dozens of apps are used around the world to warn people when exposed to people who test positive for Covid-19. Many of them also report the identities of exposed people to public health authorities, which raises privacy concerns.

Several other contact notification projects, such as the PACT, BlueTrace, and Covid Watch projects, take a similar privacy approach to Apple and Google initiatives.

Recent studies have shown that contact tracing is effective in containing diseases such as Covid-19 when the majority of the population is involved. Contact notification schemes like the Apple-Google system are not true contact tracing systems because they do not allow public health authorities to identify people exposed to infected individuals. However, digital contact notification systems have significant advantages. Available to millions of people, it quickly alerts those exposed to quarantine.

So how does Apple-Google’s contact notification system work? As a researcher on wireless communication security and privacy, I researched system specifications and evaluated their effectiveness and privacy implications.

Bluetooth beacon

With Bluetooth supported on billions of devices, the technology choices for these systems are clear. The protocol used for this is Bluetooth Low Energy, or Bluetooth LE for short. Optimized for energy-efficient communication between small devices, this variant has become a popular protocol for wearables such as smartphones and smartwatches.

Bluetooth LE communicates in two main ways. The two devices can communicate with each other through a data channel, such as a smartwatch that syncs with the phone. The device can also broadcast useful information to nearby devices via advertising channels. For example, some devices regularly announce their presence to facilitate automatic connections.

To build a contact notification app using Bluetooth LE, developers can assign a persistent ID to everyone and have all phones broadcast on ad channels. You can then create an app that receives your ID so that every phone can keep a record of close encounters with other phones. But that is clearly a privacy breach. We do not recommend broadcasting personally identifiable information via Bluetooth LE, as the message can be read by anyone within range.

Anonymous exchange

To avoid this problem, all phones broadcast long random numbers that change frequently. Other devices will receive these numbers and save them if they are sent in close proximity. By using long and unique random numbers, no personal information will be sent via Bluetooth LE.

Apple and Google follow this principle in the specification, but add encryption. First, every phone generates a unique trace key that is kept secret on the phone. Every day, the trace key will generate a new daily trace key.

You can use the trace key to identify the phone, but you cannot use the daily trace key to identify the permanent trace key for the phone. Then, every 10 to 20 minutes, the daily trace key generates a new rolling proximity identifier that looks like a long random number. It is broadcast to other devices via the Bluetooth advertising channel.

Those who test positive for Covid-19 can usually disclose a list of daily trace keys for the last 14 days. All other phones use the disclosed key to recreate an infected person rolling a proximity identifier.

The phone then compares the Covid-19-positive identifier with its own record of the identifier received from a nearby phone. A match reveals potential exposure to the virus, but does not identify the patient.

The Australian Government’s COVIDSafe app warns of close encounters with Covid-19-positive people. However, unlike the Apple-Google system, COVIDSafe reports contact information to public health authorities.

Most of the competing proposals use a similar approach. The main difference is that Apple and Google operating system updates automatically reach far more phones than a single app. In addition, by proposing a cross-platform standard, Apple and Google will be able to piggyback on existing apps and use a common, compatible communication approach that can work with many apps.

There is no perfect plan

Apple-Google’s contact notification system is very secure, but it does not guarantee accuracy or privacy. Being within the infected person’s Bluetooth range does not necessarily mean that the virus has been infected, and the system can cause a number of false positives.

Also, even if the app only records very strong signals as a proxy for close contact, you can’t tell if there was a wall, window, or floor between the phones.

However, less likely, there are ways governments and hackers can track or identify people using the system. Bluetooth LE devices use the ad address when broadcasting on the ad channel.

Although these addresses can be randomized to protect the sender’s identity, we have shown that in theory long-term device tracking is possible if the ad message and ad address do not change synchronously. Thanks to Apple and Google, they want to change these synchronously.

However, even if the ad address and the rolling identifier of the coronavirus app change synchronously, it may still be possible to track someone’s phone. Even if you don’t have enough other devices nearby and you change your ad address and rolling ID in sync, you can keep track of individual devices in a process called someone’s mixing. For example, if you have one phone in your room, only that phone can broadcast a random identifier, so someone can track it.

Another potential attack involves logging additional information along with rolling identifiers. The protocol does not send personal information or location data, but the receiving app can record when and where the key was received from another phone.

If this is done on a large scale, such as an app that systematically collects this additional information, it can be used to identify and track an individual. For example, if a supermarket records the exact date and time of a rolling proximity identifier in the checkout lane and combines that data with a credit card swipe, store staff can reasonably identify which customers are Covid-19 positive. Opportunity.

In addition, Bluetooth LE advertising beacons use plain text messages, which allows them to send fake messages. It can be used to troll others by repeating the known Covid-19-positive rolling proximity identifier to many, causing deliberate false positives.

Still, unlike contact tracing apps that report identification information to central government and corporate databases, the Apple-Google system is the key to guarding and alerting thousands of people exposed to the coronavirus. There is a possibility that

Johannes Becker is a PhD student in electrical and computer engineering, and David Starobinski is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Boston University.

This article was first published in The Conversation.

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