Behind the global efforts to make a privacy-first coronavirus tracking app Safe Paths is MIT associate professor Ramesh Raskar. The hope is that smartphone tracking — combined with widespread testing — can help create a framework for cities to let people resume their lives.
MIT Safe Paths is a citizen-centric movement to develop free, open-source, privacy-by-design tools for citizens, public health officials, and larger communities to flatten the curve of COVID-19, reduce fear, and prevent a surveillance-state response to the pandemic.
Smartphones can help reduce the spread of the virus but any network analysis could cause unacceptable intrusion to privacy and human rights. We have crafted and deployed a privacy-first solution, Safe Paths, with serious consideration of technical and human factors https://safepaths.mit.edu/. The app is up and running and available for download in both IOS and Android app stores. The initiative has senior advisors that include Ron Rivest (Encryption), Yoshua Bengio (machine learning) and social physics (Sandy Pentland), as well as Kevin Esvelt and Kent Larson on the team. Early articles in Wired , MIT Tech Review, Popular Mechanics and WSJ articles summarize the direction of the effort. Implementation pilots are under development across the globe and in the US in various states.
In the early phases, the emphasis is on rapid iteration and deployment for solutions for epidemic tracking. In the later phases, the goal is building encrypted computational methods that can be useful in any future societal disruptions. Here is Raskar's 2019 talk about creating an honest impartial broker to address challenges in a fragmented society.
- Paper: Apps Gone Rogue: Epidemics and Social Contract
- Slides: On-device and encrypted solutions, and deployment plans
Privacy: We will be using either on-device calculation or use encrypted trail match with mathematical guarantees of privacy. Thus it avoids the ‘big brother’ surveillance state problem we see in China and South Korea where GPS matching solutions have been very effective but are draconian. The misinformation and distrust can cause civil unrest in a heterogeneous society.
Why: The approach will reduce panic that overwhelms healthcare systems and allow selective interventions rather than shutting down all socio-economic activity. So we expect this tool to empower not just an individual but also city officials and businesses that must keep continuing the operations. Our research group has devised a series of solutions over the years for civil resilience. https://splitlearning.github.io/
Status: We are finishing up contract negotiations with WHO and other key organizations. The solution is being built by a consortium of epidemiologists, engineers, data scientists, digital privacy evangelists, professors and researchers from reputable institutions. WHO, HHS and the Govt of India, Italy, Germany, Vietnam and many others are guiding the development.
Future plans: In the early phases, emphasis is on rapid iteration and deployment for GPS-overlap solutions for contact tracing. In the later phases, the goal is building encrypted computational methods that can be useful in any future societal disruptions.
We are at an unprecedented time. How we respond will determine the immediate and mid-term health and economic impact of the pandemic and set the foundation for the world that will come after. While governments around the world are resorting to increasingly draconian controls to personal liberty and privacy to control the spread of the disease, we believe there is a better approach.
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