Challenges between Mobile vs Beacon-Based Contact Tracing

27 October 2020

During an outbreak, contact tracing is the first line of defense. It's among the first and most essential methods available for use in containment. Since large quantities of tests and vaccines are unlikely to be available for immediate use when outbreaks happen, contact tracing is an effective tool in helping societies reopen from lockdown mandates until tests and vaccines are ready. Digital contact tracing replaces and accelerates the process of manual interview-based contact tracing. It can help contain the outbreak faster and with greater efficiency.


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Contact tracing is a highly-effective strategy for minimizing the impact of infections like COVID-19. It gives communities a fighting chance in containing such an outbreak. The infected are identified as having been been in contact with the infected. Those individuals then have an opportunity to quarantine themselves voluntarily to help prevent further spread.

The entire process takes a lot of time and effort with the risk of human error. There are also privacy concerns to consider. Since in most cases resources are limited, the automation of contact tracing is crucial in efforts to halt the spread of disease.

Most people today carry mobile devices that are traceable using GPS in conjunction with proper infrastructure. Most also have Bluetooth capability. Both make it possible to trace where an individual has been through their device and detect other devices of those who have been within close proximity. But are mobile-based contact tracing solutions the best way to go?

Digital contact tracing strategies available today

Two of the major technologies used for digital contact tracing in the United States are Bluetooth and GPS. These tools can be used to improve the medical monitoring of high-risk parties. They can be used to self-report a user's daily temperature as well as any symptoms of infection that they've noticed. Some management systems using either technology allow for push notifications to send reminders to users for check-in during voluntary isolation or quarantine. These methods have several advantages.
1. They put user trust first.
2. The automation of the process reduces the time and man-power needed to identify contacts, facilitate communication between contacts, and assist in ensuring potentially infected individuals know to quarantine quickly to help break the chain of transmission.
3. Assists in locating potentially unknown contacts.
4. Offers a detailed mobility account of a given individual that lets the subject more accurately track their movements. It also provides public health officials with highly accurate data.
5. Allows for the categorization of different exposure risk groups that health officials can match to varying levels of monitoring, notification, and tracing.

GPS

The concepts of location and proximity are also embodied in GPS solutions. Location data from GPS solutions allows you to map and analyze the movements of individuals or big groups of people. But GPS solutions use more energy as they have to maintain a constant connection where BLE beacons send out packets when another device is detected. GPS solutions aren't as precise as Bluetooth technology either. They can't detect where two or more people have been within six feet of an infected individual for at least 15 minutes when the infection risk is at its highest. GPS location data isn't available in all locations.

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)

Bluetooth Low Energy, also called BLE, has many advantages over GPS. BLE is widely used in wearables, beacons, smart homes, and much more. BLE beacons are an Internet of Things (IoT) solution that constantly transmit radio signals that identify themselves. BLE beacons are well-suited for digital contact tracing because of their low energy consumption. They can handle proximity tracing with a minimal amount of data necessary for exchange. Their signal power can be utilized to determine the distance between two contacts which is immensely helpful when dealing with a public health crisis.

Contact tracing in the world of mobile devices

BLE solutions are more precise, secure, and use less energy. Let’s focus on their uses in contact tracing, where there are two common ways BLE can be used.

The first method uses a smartphone to directly receive the broadcast packets from another smartphone. They don't, however, establish a connection. In this scenario, each smartphone acts as a BLE beacon or a one-way transmitter that continually broadcasts identifiers to other BLE-enabled devices in close proximity.

The second method in achieving contact tracing is through badge-based solutions. When BLE beacons are used, like those from Kontakt.io, you can trace employees who have let you know they've tested positive for COVID-19. The app-based applications use low energy Bluetooth radio signals to provide real-time notifications when someone comes in contact with a known infected person. You can then immediately send people home and cut off the chain of transmission within your work environment.

It's also possible to figure out where infected individuals and those who came in contact with them have been in the building so the area can be thoroughly sanitized. This helps to block the spread of the virus to the rest of your employee population. Using a continually updated algorithm, individual exposure risk can be calculated so better decisions can be made. You can enforce social distancing, reduce lines and gatherings, track sanitation, and more.

Using BLE beacons and tags, you can promote the safety of both employees and visitors to your business. You're not only preventing the spread of the infection, you're providing peace of mind.

Worker privacy and information security considerations

In recent years, there's been a keen interest in data privacy and the protection of personal information among businesses, individuals, lawmakers, and regulatory bodies. With the broad rollout of contact-tracing applications and technology to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic, some fear years of progress in privacy laws are in jeopardy. But new laws just might raise the overall awareness of data privacy.

With BLE beacons, very specific information is provided about person-to-person interactions without dependence on GPS or other mobile devices. They don't require personal details that are in compliance with data privacy laws. The small amount of information from contact tracing is stored securely to protect the privacy of all involved contacts while providing them with immediate attention if there's a chance they've been exposed to a current virus.

Common misconceptions and risks to avoid

The popularity of BLE beacons is growing despite privacy concerns. Data breaches have been growing in frequency and severity around credit cards and businesses for the last several years. It's important to understand that when it comes to BLE beacons from reputable and reliable sources like Kontakt.io, they are completely secure. 

However, they also require a security mechanism to match the asset in question.

With an increasing interest in data privacy laws, it's also important to know that beacons don't harvest consumer data without their express consent. Implementing beacons into your workplace allows you and your employees to control your individual privacy by granting or revoking app permission. The system is fully compliant with all applicable privacy laws.

Worker safety in a post-pandemic reality

In a post-pandemic world, vigilance will be key. Once everything has fully reopened, many sectors will wisely continue to practice contact tracing and even social distancing. While BLE beacons are ideal during pandemic conditions, they can also keep you and your workers safe in other ways.

The safety of your workers is important. That's why BLE beacons are a great way to protect them moving forward. Regardless of your industry, beacons give you the ability to determine each employee's exact location in real time, even where GPS data might not be available. The location data is highly accurate. The system can even send notifications to meet a variety of needs and conditions. Help will always be available using BLE beacons.

Without a vaccine ready and a second wave of COVID-19 looming, American businesses need a practical, affordable enterprise solution to keep their staff safe and to do their part in preventing further spread of the virus. Secure BLE beacons provided by reputable providers like Kontakt.io, offer real-time location solutions that can help you reopen your business safely and fit into your budget as well. 

Would you like to learn more about how Kontakt.io's location-based services can help your business navigate the challenges presented by the current pandemic? We can help you keep your workforce safe while offering many other benefits to your business as well. Join our webinar or contact us today.

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Aneta Ciurkot

Product Marketing & Partnership Manager

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    [Updated for 2020]
    [Updated for 2020]