New Ultrasonic Contact-Tracing App Promises Better Accuracy Than Bluetooth Alternatives
Israel-based tech firm Sonarax has launched a sound-based contact-tracing app, claiming it offers improved performance and security over the contact-tracing protocols developed by Google and Apple. Making use of ultrasonic data transfer, the SONAR-X contact-tracing app avoids problems encountered by Bluetooth-based apps, such as false positives through walls and potential man-in-the-middle attacks.
Available worldwide from today, the SONAR-X app transmits data via sound waves, enabling it to detect the precise location of other users of the app starting from 30 centimetres. It can alert users whenever another phone with the app is detected within a two metre range, or whenever they encounter someone infected with the coronavirus.
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In contrast to the contact-tracing solutions being developed by Google and Apple, Sonarax’s claims that using ultrasonic sound waves to send data provides its SONAR-X app with greater precision and accuracy. In particular, Sonarax CCO Nimrod May tells me that because sound waves do not pass through walls, the app will produce significantly fewer false positives.
“Sonar-X’s Ultrasonic technology harnesses the power of sound waves which are the only connectivity medium that can be contained within a defined location,” he says. “Other wireless data communication mediums such as WiFi or Bluetooth use radio waves (RF) that cannot be contained, and easily travel through walls, dividers, ceilings, and floors.”
As such, May explains that the Sonar-X application is able to trigger alerts for a very precise radius (around 10 feet). As he adds, this “is much more in-line with the recommended social distancing parameters set forth by the CDC, WHO, and others, and will, therefore, result in much more accurate alerts and fewer false positives.”
The Google and Apple contact-tracing app makes use of Bluetooth Low Energy, as do other contact-tracing apps. However, as with other Bluetooth protocols, it still has a wide range, which May argues makes it less-than ideal for contact-tracing apps.
“Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) has a radius of around 30 feet, which is far larger than the radius recommended by every global health organization. Additionally, BLE is able to travel through walls, and has no ability to detect anything other than connected or not connected.”
As a result, May predicts that if BLE technology were to be deployed on a large scale for the purposes of contact tracing, “the result would be incredibly high levels of false positives.”
But it’s not only improved accuracy and reliability which Sonarax’s app promises. Because it uses ultrasonic waves rather than Bluetooth RF waves, it also offers enhanced security. Specifically, it isn’t vulnerable to man-in-the-middle-attacks, which cybersecurity experts have said are a potential issue with Bluetooth-based contact-tracing apps.
“Ultrasonic connectivity doesn’t provide an access channel to your device, it’s used by the application exclusively to communicate with other users,” explains May. “There are also inherent vulnerabilities from having an open BLE channel potentially providing an attacker with access to your device.”
Moving beyond its more unique features, SONAR-X works as you’d expect a contact-tracing app to work. After opening, it can operate in the background until closed by the user. All the data it records remains on the user’s device, which collects only three data points: “Unique ID”, “Time Span” and “Distance”. In addition, it doesn’t ask the user for any personal info and isn’t linked to any email account or phone number.
Users receive notifications of proximity to infected persons based on other users telling the app that they’ve been infected with the coronavirus. As such, the only possible weak point of the app is that it depends on the honesty of users.
“We rely on our users to report themselves honestly, and we let all users know about the potential ramifications of creating a false report,” says May. “Once a user submits a confirmed infection report, all other users who have been recorded as interacting with the infected user (whether through direct interaction or by being in the same location at the same time) will receive a real-time notification regarding their risk of infection, and requests that they consult with a healthcare professional as quickly as possible.”
Additionally, there’s another obvious issue: the SONAR-X app will, like other contact-tracing apps, require that a majority of people download and use it. Otherwise it won’t provide much in the way of protection.
This is an issue in countries like the US, where a Washington Post and University of Maryland poll found in April that around half of American smartphone users are reluctant to use coronavirus contact-tracing apps.
Still, other nations, such as the UK and Ireland, do have nations mostly in favour of smartphone-based contact tracing. So perhaps, as the world slowly emerges from lockdown, there will be a place for contact-tracing apps like SONAR-X.