Bluetooth update could turn wearables into COVID-19 trackers

That could enable students and older people to track their exposure.

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Daniel Cooper
August 19, 2020 8:05 AM
CUCKFIELD, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 24: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 24 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME) In this photo illustration is a copy of a text message received by the photographer from the UK government. The text reads 'GOV.UK CORONAVIRUS ALERT. New rules in force now: you must stay at home. More info and exemptions at Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives' on March 24, 2020 in in Cuckfield, England. British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced strict lockdown measures urging people to stay at home and only leave the house for basic food shopping, exercise once a day and essential travel to and from work. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread to at least 182 countries, claiming over 10,000 lives and infecting hundreds of thousands more. (Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)
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Billions of people have smartphones, but not everyone has them, and they’re not the only smart devices folks have access to. Older people, and young kids, have valid reasons for not owning one, which excludes them from the phone-based contact-tracing systems currently being put in place. That could reduce the overall efficacy of preventing further spread of COVID-19, which is prompting the Bluetooth Special Interest Group into action. The SIG is the body that administers the wireless standard, and is looking to broaden how its contact-tracing application works to include wearables as well as phones.

It has announced that it’s begun looking at a way of enabling wearables to participate in exposure notification systems. The idea is to let smartwatches, fitness trackers and even Bluetooth wristbands to form part of the contact tracing network. That way, currently disconnected groups like children and people in care homes could be tracked without needing to buy them all a new phone. For instance, a kid wearing a Fitbit could go about their day, downloading the data to their parent’s phone when they get home from school. 

The point of all of this, of course, is to add this power to the existing number of wearables that are currently available. Ken Kolderup, the SIG’s VP of Marketing told Engadget that “there is nothing in the spec that prevents an existing wearable to add support for this new capability.” Kolderup added that adding everyone’s wearables to the system is a “key goal,” although doing so is “up to its manufacturer.”

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In its statement, the SIG quotes Technical University of Munich professor Elisa Resconi, who says that “including wearable devices in an ENS [Exposure Notification System] would be a very effective method for extending its reach to support these important groups.” So far, 130 of the body’s member companies have joined a working group to work out ways to implement this system while preserving user privacy. It says that it’s expecting an early draft of the technology to be available within “the next few months.” 

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