A US intelligence research lab is seeking more advanced forms of contact tracing, a method of data collection being used to track the spread of Covid-19. The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA), a lab within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, announced a research opportunity for contractors to develop new ways to diagnose and track the virus.
Apple and Google recently teamed up to develop contact tracing apps that work on both companies’ smartphones. The most recent iOS software update to the iPhone included contact tracing software. The current software requires users to opt-in and uses Bluetooth to track who people have been in contact with. If a user tests positive for Covid-19, anyone who’s been in contact with them will get a notification. Besides this software, some state governments have developed their own contact tracing apps.
IARPA is looking for new approaches for “contact tracing among populations who lack mobile phones and/or internet connectivity.” It is hard to imagine what form new contact tracing technology can take without the use of smartphones. IARPA says the new Covid-19 tracking technology will be “privacy-protecting” and calls for “rapid and robust tracking of individual-to-individual pathogen spread.”
When it comes to technology designed to track people, privacy is always a concern. While the current technology is designed for voluntary use, some fear the software could be used for other purposes.
Dozens of people have been arrested in Minneapolis during protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Speaking at a press conference on Saturday, Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said they’ve begun “contact tracing” arrestees. Although it is not clear if Minnesota authorities are actually using contact tracing software in people’s phones, Harrington did say they are “analyzing data” to find out who arrestees are associated with.
IARPA is also looking to develop rapid virus diagnosis methods, with emphasis on non-contact approaches, like breath sampling, that could be used at entrances to public transportation. IARPA seeks field monitoring of RNA and DNA in environmental samples, like wastewater, to detect viral outbreaks.
The lab also wants to develop tools to map global supply chains, models used to predict the effects of pandemics, and tools for widespread surveillance of animal-borne pathogens before they make the jump to humans.