Cybersecurity and Privacy Implications of Contact Tracing

Two THaW researchers participated as panelists in a recent online panel discussion about contact tracing, with an emphasis on the security and privacy aspects. The video is now available.

“The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for contact tracing, an effort to retroactively discover and inform all the persons who had recent contact with an infected person. Traditional methods are labor-intensive and inherently limited by human memory. Smartphone apps have been proposed to proactively record contacts, for retrospective notifications to those who may have been proximate to someone later discovered to be infected. There are, however, inherent privacy and cybersecurity risks posed by such technologies, and the same technologies could be abused for purposes other than public health. It is thus essential for contact tracing technologies to be designed and deployed with the utmost care and transparency.”

THaW work on contact tracing

Early THaW research on contact tracing is finding new relevance as groups across the US and around the world scramble to develop privacy-preserving contact-tracing apps.  Notable app efforts include DP-3TPEPP-PT, and SafePaths.  All of those efforts focus on privacy-preserving apps for retrospective notification of persons who may have had “contact” with a person later determined to be ill with an infectious disease, where “contact” occurs when spending time in close proximity to the infected person.  THaW student Aarathi Prasad went further, devising a system that could also detect “close encounters”, e.g., for those who may have visited a place soon after the infected person left.  Some diseases, including perhaps the coronavirus, can linger in the air or on surfaces for hours.

The lead author on THaW’s work, Aarathi Prasad, is now a professor at Skidmore College, which just posted an extended story about her work. Her work was originally published in the paper below.

Aarathi Prasad and David Kotz. ENACT: Encounter-based Architecture for Contact Tracing. Proceedings of the ACM Workshop on Physical Analytics (WPA), pages 37–42. ACM Press, June 2017. doi:10.1145/3092305.3092310. ©Copyright ACM.

Abstract: Location-based sharing services allow people to connect with others who are near them, or with whom they shared a past encounter. Suppose it were also possible to connect with people who were at the same location but at a different time – we define this scenario as a close encounter, i.e., an incident of spatial and temporal proximity. By detecting close encounters, a person infected with a contagious disease could alert others to whom they may have spread the virus. We designed a smartphone-based system that allows people infected with a contagious virus to send alerts to other users who may have been exposed to the same virus due to a close encounter. We address three challenges: finding devices in close encounters with minimal changes to existing infrastructure, ensuring authenticity of alerts, and protecting privacy of all users. Finally, we also consider the challenges of a real-world deployment.