Skip to main content
Move the World.
track the coronavirus

Lead Image © Xerox123 / Adobe Stock

The ubiquity of smartphones means most of us walk around with a GPS right in our pocket or purse — and now, researchers have developed an app that exploits the tech to track the coronavirus.

The app, Private Kit: Safe Paths, uses location-tracking technology to monitor a person's movements, letting them know if they've crossed paths with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.

It's not the only app designed to track the coronavirus — but its emphasis on protecting the privacy of users may help it gain traction in the United States.

A New Way to Track the Coronavirus

Researchers from MIT and Harvard led the development of Private Kit, with experts from several other organizations contributing to the effort.

To track the coronavirus, a person simply downloads the app and consents to sharing their location. The app then begins tracking their movements, storing up to 28 day's worth of encrypted location data directly on their phone.

"App users are able to make more informed decisions on when to self-quarantine."

Alina Clough

If a person is diagnosed with the coronavirus, they can choose to send that data to health officials via a QR code.

Using a web app, the health official then removes any information that might reveal the identity of the person before releasing the location data.

After that, the app sends alerts to any users who crossed paths with the diagnosed person, letting them know the details of the encounter, such as where it took place and for how long.

"Through more knowledge on their exposure, app users are able to make more informed decisions on when to self-quarantine or seek testing when experiencing symptoms," Alina Clough, a Harvard researcher who worked on the app, told Fast Company.

Global Tracking of COVID-19

This isn't the only attempt to track the coronavirus via smartphones.

Mobile carriers are now sending customers' anonymized location data directly to health officials in Italy, Germany, and Austria so they can see how citizens are moving amid the coronavirus outbreak.

South Korea is using a combination of smartphone data, surveillance video, and other inputs to trace the paths of people diagnosed with COVID-19. Anyone can now visit a website to view those paths and see if they might have come in contact with an infected person.

China, meanwhile, launched its own app to track the coronavirus back in February. Just like Private Kit, it uses location-tracking tech to monitor citizens' movements and let them know if they've come in close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.

Unlike the MIT team's app, though, China's isn't concerned with maintaining users' privacy — a New York Times analysis found that the app sends their identifying information and location details directly to law enforcement in real-time.

If China's app determines that a person may have come in contact with an infected individual, they can find their movement throughout the nation restricted — even if they haven't been diagnosed with COVID-19 and show no symptoms of the virus.

The Impact of Private Kit

Because a person can be infected with the coronavirus and show no symptoms, it's been incredibly difficult to track — and tracking the virus is essential to ending the outbreak.

Smartphones and their ability to record our movements in precise detail could fill this knowledge gap, but while they may now be ubiquitous, they're also relatively new.

They certainly weren't around during the last global pandemic, meaning this is the first time in history that humanity is facing a global infectious disease outbreak while armed with this trove of data on how the infection has spread.

But experts warn that citizens must think very carefully about how they allow governments to wield that weapon now as it could inform the way they use it in the future, too.

The U.S. is already attempting to get location data on citizens through mobile carriers as a way to track the coronavirus, but privacy concerns have stymied those efforts.

An app like Private Kit could balance the need for better disease surveillance with citizens' right to privacy. But the app's creators have acknowledged that Private Kit will only make a significant difference in the coronavirus outbreak if enough people use it.

Up Next

If you want to understand a problem, talk to the people working on solutions. Join us as we meet the people and explore the ideas on the frontlines of an unprecedented global response.

Public Heath
China Is Responding to the Coronavirus in a Way Only China Could
China Is Responding to the Coronavirus in a Way Only China Could
Public Heath
China Is Responding to the Coronavirus in a Way Only China Could
China is using its vast surveillance network and near-total control over citizens to respond to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in a way perhaps no other nation could.

China is using its vast surveillance network and near-total control over citizens to respond to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in a way perhaps no other nation could.

Robotics
The Coronavirus Hospital Staffed by Robots
coronavirus hospital
Robotics
The Coronavirus Hospital Staffed by Robots
A robot-run coronavirus hospital in Wuhan, China, is just one remarkable example of how technology is helping combat the global COVID-19 outbreak.

A robot-run coronavirus hospital in Wuhan, China, is just one remarkable example of how technology is helping combat the global COVID-19 outbreak.

Medical Innovation
Experts Are 3D Printing Coronavirus Supplies for Hospitals
coronavirus supplies
Medical Innovation
Experts Are 3D Printing Coronavirus Supplies for Hospitals
After an Italian firm 3D printed in-demand coronavirus supplies for a hospital, others in the community were inspired to offer their own help.

After an Italian firm 3D printed in-demand coronavirus supplies for a hospital, others in the community were inspired to offer their own help.

Computer Science
Our Spare Computer Is Helping Fight Coronavirus. Yours Can, Too.
fight coronavirus
Computer Science
Our Spare Computer Is Helping Fight Coronavirus. Yours Can, Too.
Help fight the coronavirus by donating your spare computing power to [email protected], which will use it to run valuable protein-folding simulations.

Help fight the coronavirus by donating your spare computing power to [email protected], which will use it to run valuable protein-folding simulations.

Public Health
South Korea Starts Using “Phone Booths” for Coronavirus Tests
coronavirus tests
Public Health
South Korea Starts Using “Phone Booths” for Coronavirus Tests
A South Korean hospital has created “phone booths” where medical staff can complete coronavirus tests on patients during the COVID-19 outbreak.

A South Korean hospital has created “phone booths” where medical staff can complete coronavirus tests on patients during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Computer Science
Crowdsourcing the Seed for Coronavirus Antiviral Medications
antiviral medications
Computer Science
Crowdsourcing the Seed for Coronavirus Antiviral Medications
Foldit players are solving a protein structure puzzle that could help kickstart coronavirus antiviral medications.

Foldit players are solving a protein structure puzzle that could help kickstart coronavirus antiviral medications.

Health
Data Scientists Are Making It Easier to Track COVID-19
Track COVID-19
Health
Data Scientists Are Making It Easier to Track COVID-19
Teams of computer scientists across the globe are working tirelessly to help track COVID-19 through the use of computer modeling and data dissemination.

Teams of computer scientists across the globe are working tirelessly to help track COVID-19 through the use of computer modeling and data dissemination.

Volunteerism
Coronavirus Volunteers Are Using Tech to Help Their Communities
coronavirus volunteers
Volunteerism
Coronavirus Volunteers Are Using Tech to Help Their Communities
Groups looking for ways to help during COVID-19 are turning to tech, using websites, spreadsheets, and online forms to mobilize coronavirus volunteers.

Groups looking for ways to help during COVID-19 are turning to tech, using websites, spreadsheets, and online forms to mobilize coronavirus volunteers.

Autonomous Cars
Delivery Robot Distributes Supplies During Coronavirus
delivery robot
Autonomous Cars
Delivery Robot Distributes Supplies During Coronavirus
Chinese company Neolix’s delivery robot has proven to be an instrumental — and versatile — weapon in China’ fight against the novel coronavirus.

Chinese company Neolix’s delivery robot has proven to be an instrumental — and versatile — weapon in China’ fight against the novel coronavirus.