I recently participated in an interesting online debate about the use of wireless technologies to track pandemics, as part of the Senza Fili #WirelessFightsCOVID webinar series. During our discussion, there were a lot of opinions on how to track the spread of infection and what is the best and most secure way to do contact tracing while protecting personal privacy and data security.

One of the ideas floated was the use of a mobile app that requires people to opt-in voluntarily. This is a system being used in many countries today as a simple method of tracing and analysis. Part of the challenge with using only this approach is that if not enough people opt-in it will not be effective due to incomplete data. In addition, apps require a smart phone and good data connectivity, and not everyone will have both — in fact, only 5 out of 10 people in the industrial world have a smart phone with some data access, versus 9 out of 10 with some kind of mobile device.

Meanwhile, for the last two decades, network operators have been using mobile network events generated from actual subscriber data to obtain accurate geolocation intelligence, which is independent from the device type or data connectivity. While polls show that some people worry about privacy concerns when it comes to network operators, this data is aggregated and anonymized for use by operators to improve quality of service and network performance.

The anonymous data also can be useful to track viral infections; however, there are multiple network operators in any given country. In addition, network operators can only provide the location intelligence, whereas more informed health data is needed to have a truly effective contact tracing solution. That’s where independent health organizations and institutions can be of great help, and people tend to trust them.

I believe the optimal solution is a combination of all the above. Mobile apps can be useful, but they have to be augmented by complete mobile network data to attain full coverage. And the data should be administered and controlled by the independent health institution in each country who can work with ALL the network operators to provide a comprehensive national solution that protects citizens’ privacy while tracking and staying ahead of viral infections.

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Chief Technology Officer, VIAVI Solutions

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