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Marconi Fellow Ron Rivest Breaks Ground in COVID-19 Contact Tracing

Marconi Fellows are recognized for their impact on society and humankind. As the COVID-19 pandemic radically alters everyone’s lives, we are proud to see some of these Fellows at the forefront of innovation.

For the past few months, MIT scientists have been working around the clock to develop the Private Automated Contact Tracing (PACT) Project to help slow the spread of COVID-19. We are proud that 2007 Marconi Fellow and expert cryptographer Ron Rivest serves as the principal investigator of the project.

So what does this technology do? The PACT Project uses Bluetooth technology on smartphones to alert people who have recently been near someone who tested positive for coronavirus. The app tells users how close they were standing to an infected person and for how long.

The inspiration for the project came from a Bluetooth approach created by Rivest. Apple and Google utilized Rivest’s ideas to leverage the “Find My” feature for this challenge. Bluetooth technology has the capability to detect other close-by devices by emitting a random signal, also called a “chirp.” The app is designed to make your phone send out chirps constantly and record all the signals it picks up.

“I keep track of what I’ve broadcasted, and you keep track of what you’ve heard, and this will allow us to tell if someone was in close proximity to an infected person,” Rivest told MIT News.

If another user reports in the app’s “exposure database” that they recently tested positive, the system will notify you if your phone picked up this person’s code in the last two weeks. If your phone tells you that you picked up an infected person’s Bluetooth code, or “chirp,” this means that you were potentially exposed to coronavirus. Once this occurs, the app will provide you with resources and information from public health authorities on what to do next.

Most importantly, Rivest designed a system that ensures privacy and confidentiality so that a person’s “chirp” cannot be traced back to an individual.

“We want to be able to let people carefully get back to normal life while also having this ability to carefully quarantine and identify certain vectors of an outbreak,” said Rivest.

There has been significant press coverage of this innovative and lifesaving technology. Check out the news articles below to learn more about Ron’s work.

Government Technology: States See Benefits of Cellphone-Based Contact Tracing

“The MIT program is based on an approach developed by Ron Rivest, a world-renowned expert on cryptography, using Bluetooth signals and has become the ‘inspiration for the effort by Apple and Google,’ said Israel Soibelman, chief strategy officer of MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory.”

MIT News: Bluetooth signals from your smartphone could automate Covid-19 contact tracing while preserving privacy

“I keep track of what I’ve broadcasted, and you keep track of what you’ve heard, and this will allow us to tell if someone was in close proximity to an infected person,” says Ron Rivest, MIT Institute Professor and principal investigator of the project. “But for these broadcasts, we’re using cryptographic techniques to generate random, rotating numbers that are not just anonymous, but pseudonymous, constantly changing their ‘ID,’ and that can’t be traced back to an individual.”

“We want to be able to let people carefully get back to normal life while also having this ability to carefully quarantine and identify certain vectors of an outbreak,” Rivest says.

“This project is being done in true academic style. It’s not a contest; it’s a collective effort on the part of many, many people to get a system working,” Rivest says.

Fast Company: Contact tracing apps are on the way. Will they help us get back to normal?

“One Oxford University study estimated that in a city of 1 million people, it would take 60% of the population installing such an app to shut down the epidemic, although lower levels of use could still make a difference.”

“As states pour their resources into contact tracing tools, they are missing half of one of the most vulnerable populations,” said Alvaro Bedoya, founding director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, in a statement. “There is a real disparity here.”