Developing a method of COVID-19 contact tracing using physical tokens

EIT Digital invites researchers, innovators, entrepreneurs, industry players and policymakers to join efforts to develop a system for anonymous COVID-19 contact tracing using physical tokens.

The need for fast, early stage information about the spreading of infectious diseases makes contact tracing an important and recognised part of any strategy to monitor infections and prevent larger outbreaks. COVID-19 contact tracing is, however, labour intensive and would benefit from an automated system. Many countries are therefore trying to develop such systems using smartphone technology.

The development and deployment of smartphone apps have triggered debates on privacy, accuracy, and technology sovereignty. While serious efforts are made to overcome these challenges, it is nevertheless wise to investigate in parallel alternative technologies for realising a contact tracing system.

“Given the importance of a contact tracing system in the fight against COVID-19, it is wise to explore different technologies in parallel in order to increase the chance of actual deployment,” says EIT Digital CEO Willem Jonker.

Cross-disciplinary collaboration

Due to the urgent need for such system, it is only logical to look in other sectors for technology that exists and that might be adapted for this specific purpose. Logistics is such a sector with comprehensive tracing expertise and deployment of tracing systems using alternative token-based technology. In parallel to the smartphone approach, it therefore makes sense to mobilise efforts around a contact tracing system based on physical tokens.

It is important that contact tracing can be achieved without using personal information and anonymity will be key for user acceptance.

“A contact tracing system based on physical tokens can be compared to the concept of a lottery,” says Willem Jonker. “Participation is voluntary and there is an incentive to participate. Physical lottery tickets have a serial number and are distributed via shops. The purchase of a lottery ticket is anonymous, since it is not registered who has purchased which ticket. Winning ticket numbers are publicly announced, and participants themselves are responsible for claiming their prize upon presenting their ticket.”

The benefits of physical tokens

Physical tokens only require the minimal functionalities needed for contact tracing. They are small, robust, cheap, and consume little energy. They can feature more accurate proximity technologies and allow for higher levels of privacy and security due to their simplicity, single application, and not being permanently connected to a network.

“Since technology adaption to different domains is a known innovation principle and tracing with the help of physical tokens is well-established in logistics, it makes sense to look for a system based on this technology.

“We therefore invite researchers, innovators, entrepreneurs, industry players and policymakers to join our efforts with their creativeness, technology and expertise and to further investigate the option of anonymous COVID-19 contact tracing using physical tokens,” says Chahab Nastar, EIT Digital’s Chief Innovation Officer.

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