Taiwan offers its contact tracing apps to UK

Honour guards perform before a baseball game in Taipei - Chiang Ying-ying/AP
Honour guards perform before a baseball game in Taipei – Chiang Ying-ying/AP

Taiwan is ready to offer up the technical know-how of its Covid-19 Bluetooth and GPS tracing apps if the UK requests them, its government cyber chief has pledged. 

“If your government needs it, we can provide the source code,” said Howard Jyan, who leads the Taiwan’s cyber security department in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph. 

The offer comes amid technical glitches and privacy concerns as the UK attempts to roll out its own prototype NHS tracing app – designed to alert people if they have been in contact with an infected person – in a trial run on the Isle of Wight. 

Mobile phone tracing apps are being billed as an important tool to track the virus and help quickly isolate cases to stop the spread and save lives. 

More than 30 systems are being developed globally as governments and health authorities increasingly view the experimental technology as a golden ticket to easing lockdowns. 

Taiwan has been recognised as a global leader in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, shielding its 23 million citizens from the deadly disease through a combination of strict border controls, contact tracing and quarantine while avoiding a full lockdown and allowing life to remain relatively normal. 

Baseball fans are slowly being allowed to return as Taiwan successfully fights the virus - Chiang Ying-ying/AP
Baseball fans are slowly being allowed to return as Taiwan successfully fights the virus – Chiang Ying-ying/AP

Despite being located just 80 miles off the coast of China, to date Taiwan has seen only 440 cases and 6 deaths. It has experienced minimal community spread and most cases have been imported from abroad.

As a result, its cyber experts have had months to create two voluntary tracing apps – one for border control and health checks using GPS and one for social distancing using Bluetooth – but have not yet needed to launch them, explained Mr Jyan. 

They have been designed along the lines of the methods Taiwan has relied on so far – the less precise, but less invasive use of phone location data, working alongside five national telecoms companies. 

When the first inkling of a mystery respiratory illness emerged from China in December, Taiwan acted fast to monitor the health of incoming travellers and control its borders, gradually phasing in 14-day home quarantine firstly for arrivals from China and adding other countries as the virus spread. 

Compulsory quarantine for inbound passengers – a move resisted so far by the UK but which may be adopted this weekend – has been a vital first line of defence in Taiwan’s pandemic response strategy. 

Home isolation of new arrivals, most of them returning citizens, is enforced by base station triangulation explained Mr Jyan. It operates through a mobile phone-based “electronic fence” that uses location-tracking to ensure quarantined people remain at home. 

Taiwan is sending PPE donations around the world - Patrick T Fallon/Bloomberg
Taiwan is sending PPE donations around the world – Patrick T Fallon/Bloomberg

The system begins at the airport, when arriving passengers fill out a form on their mobile phones and the details are fed into a centralised tracing system. Each case is then assigned a social worker, health and police officer. 

The social worker calls twice a day to check the person doesn’t avoid tracking by leaving their phone behind. If a phone is unanswered every 15 minutes for an hour, it prompts a home visit by the police. 

In addition, the person’s mobile location is monitored through its communication with the nearest base station, giving a rough range of about 300 metres.  If the phone leaves this area, the user and local officials receive an automated text message alert. 

“Everything is based on guidelines to keep the balance between tracing and privacy protection..using mobile signals is less of a privacy invasion than GPS because GPS is very precise. We only use this rough position,” said Mr Jyan. 

He said there was a noticeable shift in behaviour between business travellers in isolation and an influx of students returning from the US and Europe in mid-March. Younger people tried to test the boundaries of their mobile phone ranges, triggering multiple alerts to tell them to go home. 

Quarantine violations can result in hefty fines of up to $33,000 – a maximum penalty that was slapped on one young man in March when he broke quarantine to go to a nightclub and got caught in a police spot check. 

Taiwanese health minister Chen Shih-chung explains Taiwan's successful pandemic strategy - Johnson Lai/AP
Taiwanese health minister Chen Shih-chung explains Taiwan’s successful pandemic strategy – Johnson Lai/AP

However, fines were only one reason the system had a near universal compliance record for more than 9,100 currently being monitored, said Mr Jyan. “Our citizens believe they should stay at home and not hurt other people. I think that is part of the culture.”

To ensure privacy, only the commander of the Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC) has access to the names of the mobile phone users, and has a nationwide overview. 

There is a firewall between each county’s monitoring information and names are not given to the police, only phone numbers. All information is deleted at the end of the 14-day period. 

The tracing of individuals in direct or suspected contact with infected individuals is another key component in Taiwan’s armory, and also depends heavily on location tracking linked to base stations. 

As an island, Taiwan’s two biggest pandemic scares have been related to infected ships.

When the ill-fated Diamond Princess cruise liner docked in the northern port of Keelung, thousands of passengers – an unknown number Covid-19 positive – fanned out across densely populated areas. 

News of the outbreak broke days later when the ship docked in Yokohama, Japan, and Taiwan’s disease detectives rushed into action. 

Taiwan has recorded several zero case days - David Chang/EPA-EFE
Taiwan has recorded several zero case days – David Chang/EPA-EFE

With the help of telecoms operators they first identified all foreign numbers pinging off the mobile phone mast where the ship was docked. These were then matched to base stations around the island to track where the passengers had gone sightseeing. 

The third step was to compare the time and location of the foreign numbers with local numbers that were in the same vicinity within the same 15-minute window, which resulted in 620,000 matches. 

A blanket emergency alert urging people to look out for Covid-19 symptoms and call a central helpline if ill was sent to everyone in northern Taiwan, and also specifically to the 620,000 identified mobile numbers.

A similar approach was taken in April when sailors linked to a cluster on a naval ship travelled across the island before being recalled to quarantine. Over 200,000 people whose phones matched the same time and vicinity as the sailors received a warning alert. 

In addition, contact tracers interviewed the sailors to identify and tracked over 1,200 individuals who they had directly interacted with. 

Human intelligence is carried out by the CECC, who draft an investigation report that can then be checked by the police using CCTV and mobile phone records. 

The surveillance is regulated by the Communicable Disease Control Act drafted after a deadly SARS outbreak in 2003, which places strict curbs on what data can be gathered and how long it can be retained for. 

Tools like facial recognition are taboo. After emerging to democracy in 1987 after a decades-long period of brutal martial law, and living in shadow of the Chinese surveillance state, Taiwan’s citizens cherish their hard-won freedoms. 

For that reason, and while the virus remains under control, Taiwan has not adopted GPS and Bluetooth apps developed between government cyber officials and private company Taiwan AI Labs. 

But the apps, which use more precise technology, could be valuable options for countries like the UK where the virus is already widespread. 

For the Bluetooth social distancing app, smartphones exchange data with other devices at a close range of 10 to 100 metres and can more precisely judge the range of contact with an infected case.

To preserve privacy, citizens can download and use the app without having to register. Alerts about contacts with Covid-19 cases also do not provide precise information of detailed times and locations that could identify the patient.

Taiwan’s app is unique as after installation, the smartphone generates a new scrambled ID every 15 minutes, sending out a new ID every time. The Bluetooth devices on individual handsets only record each other’s hashed IDs, along with the duration and distance of contact.

The app does not store private details, and is legally blocked from sending the data to the government. It complies with Taiwan’s personal protection laws and the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

A similar contact tracing app tabled by the NHS involves a unique ID code being generated for a user just once, making it less secure than the Taiwanese model.

An alternative model proposed by Apple and Google in the UK aims to address privacy concerns tied to the NHS’ first app with similar features to the Taiwan app.

A “decentralised” system means data is not sent to the government or a public health body, while location data and other information that could potentially identify someone is left out. 

“It’s a balance. Privacy protection is the red line the government should not cross,” said Mr Jyan. “We are very happy to provide this app if another country wants to use it.”