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‘Switch phone tracking on 24/7 to detect spread of coronavirus,’ says GPS expert

Ramsey Faragher, founder of Focal Point Positioning. Picture: Keith Heppell
Ramsey Faragher, founder of Focal Point Positioning. Picture: Keith Heppell

It’s not his day job, but as a by-product of developing supercorrelation, Focal Point Positioning founder Dr Ramsey Faragher could help lower the spread of coronavirus.

Supercorrelation, developed in Cambridge by Dr Faragher, dramatically transforms GPS accuracy and integrity, but Dr Faragher’s suggestion about how to detect the spread of coronavirus involves using legacy technology, rather then developing something new - which means it can be put to work immediately.

Dr Faragher suggests a radical-but-simple method of slowing the spread of the virus using mobile phone technology. The method simply extends existing health-based mandates already in place on our phones. It involves permanently switching on the geo-positioning signal that your phone would ordinarily only be used when you call 999.

“If you call 999 your phone turns on all the location capabilities it has and the GPS signal is sent seamlessly in the background to the emergency services,” Dr Faragher told the Cambridge Independent. “It’s called E-911 in the US, E-112 in Europe – these two have been mandated to use the GPS chip in a phone or establish a telephone estimate of where you are. A newer system called Advanced Mobile Location uses all capabilities within the phone for positioning including wifi, which E-112 can’t use because it was never set up to use wifi.

“They are examples of how the technology in phones can be used in the background to look after us. You can go further in epidemics or pandemics, to understand who’s interacted with who and when, by using the sensors and other radio technologies in our phones.

Coronavirus has led to a dramatic rise in people washing their hands
Coronavirus has led to a dramatic rise in people washing their hands

“Your phone could warn you that you recently interacted with someone who has now been diagnosed with coronavirus and that you should get tested or self-isolate, even if this was a person you never even knew you ‘met’. If you have a status setting for coronavirus you’ll be able to detect how the virus is spreading. This will be of immense use because the virus incubates for two weeks, and early notification could result in more sufferers self-isolating, thereby minimising the risk of infecting others.”

The obvious concern is that once this 24/7 tracking is activated it infringes Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which concerns the individual’s right to privacy. But has that ship sailed?

“Yes it’s private information, but it’s also fundamental to the entire business model of the social networks to know when people interact with each other and for how long. I wouldn’t be surprised if social networks already use similar methods to confirm that users of their app interact in the real world as well as the virtual and to recommend new contacts to you based on physical interactions.

“But the most important thing is that an epidemic-prevention app could use this data solely for monitoring and responding to pathogen transmission.

“Once the threat has passed, the records of interactions can be deleted.”

Read the full blog post here.

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