In our previous post, we talked about how the problem of building decentralized, privacy-preserving contact tracing systems is an opportunity to meaningfully apply cryptography to a pressing public health problem. That post described one effort, TraceTogether, but there are several other efforts in development. In this post, we’ll describe a cryptographic perspective on the contact tracing problem, identifying different design tradeoffs in the problem space, as well as how different efforts compare on those tradeoffs. Finally, we’ll describe an abstract set of functionality that seems useful for contact tracing and some other applications.

Before going further, it’s important to describe the limited scope and perspective of this post. First, contact tracing is not a silver-bullet solution, but one tool among many, such as widespread testing and face masks (both of which have yet to be deployed in the US). Second, it’s most useful in the earliest stage of an epidemic, while many regions are unfortunately well past that stage. However, even in the optimistic case where suppression mechanisms such as shelter-in-place orders are effective and the prevalence of COVID-19 drops, we will continue to be in the earliest stages of an epidemic until a vaccine is widely available. And as noted in our previous post, it’s an area where cryptography can play a useful role.

Cryptography builds systems that mediate and rearrange trust. Because trust is hard to scale, this often takes the form of reducing the need for trust, or for leveraging trust in a smaller context to apply to a wider one. For instance, transport encryption like TLS eliminates the need to trust network intermediaries, and digital signatures allow converting trust in the integrity of a single signing key into trust in the integrity of arbitrary messages.

So when considering how cryptography could be used for contact tracing systems, we should first try to classify the categories of trust involved in the problem:

  1. Trust in access to and use of location data. Location data is highly sensitive. Who is allowed access to it, under what circumstances? Can those parties be trusted to have that access? As a matter of perception, are they? Is that data centralized in one place? Is it subject to legal risks, like subpoenas?
  2. Trust in functional capacity of health authorities. In an ideal world, health authorities would have unlimited resources and perfect effectiveness in deploying them. But in the real world, health authorities have limited resources, are strained under the burden of dealing with the epidemic, or may fail to respond adequately or effectively. All of these factors can cause health authorities to be unable to carry out their function, and there have been examples of all of them so far. Is the system reliant on that function, or is it resilient in case of failure? While no technological system can properly compensate for institutional failure, a system that is resilient to failure can potentially absorb slack and give people agency to help themselves.
  3. Trust in report integrity and availability. What measures does the system use, if any, to determine the integrity of a report of infection? Are those reports authenticated in some way, and if so, by whom? On the other side, what measures does the system use, if any, to ensure that users can make reports of infection available? There is a tension between integrity and availability, especially when health authorities are under stress and access to testing is limited.

These categories let us compare and contrast different approaches to the problem.

The furthest-developed seems to be TraceTogether, produced by the Government of Singapore. It uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to broadcast ephemeral encryptions of user identifiers, and logs all observed broadcasts. If a user becomes infected, they can be tested by the Singapore Ministry of Health (MoH), who can request (with legal authority) and decrypt that user’s log entries. The MoH promises not to use the data for other purposes. This system is much better than location tracking, since rather than exact location, only contacts are recorded, and because data is held locally and is only obtained by the MoH on infection, but still requires trust that the data will not be misused or mishandled. However, it relies critically on the functional capacity of the MoH to perform testing and contact notification, and this may not be easily replicable outside of Singapore.

Another approach is PrivateKit/SafePaths, produced by researchers from the MIT Media Lab and others. It performs geolocation tracking to produce a complete log of users’ movements. Users who become infected can upload their complete location history to a health authority. Then, a health official decides what information is personally identifiable and uses a custom web app to “redact” and “blur” the history before publishing it. Other users can then download the trail and compare it with their history. This system does not provide location privacy, since a complete track is given to a health official, who has to decide what location data is sensitive. (In fact, all location data is sensitive). And not only is it reliant on the participation of a health authority, it also adds a burdensome redaction process to their workload.

A third approach is Enigma’s SafeTrace, which aims to build a contact tracing system using Intel SGX, processing user data inside of a secure enclave and relying on Intel hardware attestations to verify that the version of the code running in the enclave is one that does not compromise user privacy. This protects location data, as long as SGX is completely reliable. However, it’s unclear how justified this trust is, as SGX security has been repeatedly broken, with the most recent attack about two weeks ago.

Finally, Covid-Watch and Community Epidemiology (CoEpi) are two efforts collaborating on a common protocol for Bluetooth-based contact tracing. This protocol is under development, but unlike TraceTogether, matching occurs on the client, so it does not require a centralized party to match contacts. This means it has even lower trust requirements for the first trust category. The prospect of a shared protocol is also very exciting, because any protocol for contact tracing will have very powerful network effects. While these efforts are collaborating on a common protocol, they make different choices in the second trust category: Covid-Watch trusts health authorities to report infections, while CoEpi aims to allow self-reporting. This choice has implications for the third category, since trusting health authorities may make report integrity easier, while allowing self-reporting helps availability – for instance if there is a testing shortage.

At a general level, if we don’t assume the presence of a centralized party that can be trusted to verify reports of infection, what we’re left with is not really a contact tracing protocol but a particular kind of messaging protocol, where users create tracks through space and time, and can perform anonymous retrospective broadcasts to users whose tracks were spatially nearby to theirs in a particular time range. What follows is a sketch of some potential ideal functionality for this kind of system.

This messaging system should be privacy-preserving, in the following sense:

For efficiency reasons, it would be ideal to create a protocol whose interactions could fit into the following model:

This system can be used to implement decentralized contact tracing, by allowing users who test positive to anonymously broadcast a message to inform their past contacts of their test. Users who receive a message can make an informed judgement based on its contents. Separating the messaging problem from the contact tracing problem and allowing users (or user-agents) to make decisions of their own is significantly more flexible. For instance, a user could publish a photo of a test result with their name redacted, or reveal their identity by linking to a social media post, or post a link to some institutional verification mechanism, if one existed.

This system has other potential applications beyond contact tracing, such as building a system like Craigslist’s Missed Connections with notifications. Also, this system’s communication flow is compatible with a moderation / karma system that can be used to ban accounts that post spam or abusive messages. This would work by reporting bad messages to the server, which would prevent them from being downloaded by other users, and/or ban the user that uploaded them.