Bluetooth Working on COVID-19 Contact Tracing Support Update for Wearables

COVID-19 contact tracing will soon make its way to wearable devices thanks to an upcoming Bluetooth update.

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group has unveiled plans for a specification that would bring the Exposure Notification System from Apple and Google to Bluetooth wearables. The spec would maintain the privacy and security of the existing approach, but wouldn’t require a direct internet connection to get data for potential exposure events.

The group’s rationale is that wearables “can better address population groups where smartphone usage remains low, including children in primary school and older adults living in care facilities.”

The SIG envisions that wearables will be bonded with a smartphone and a contact-tracing app, and do the same things that apps do: pinging other nearby devices that run Bluetooth and sharing ephemeral and anonymous identifiers that authorities can use to notify of exposure to COVID-19 carriers. But the smartphone owner will be the one who receives notification of exposure to a COVID-carrier.

In a blog post regarding the matter, Elisa Rescone, a physics professor at the Technical University of Munich who is leading research on non-pharmaceutical interventions against COVID-19, said:

There are several population groups critical to managing the spread of diseases like COVID-19 with relatively low smartphone penetration, presenting a coverage challenge for smartphone-based Exposure Notification System. We believe including wearable devices in an ENS would be a very effective method for extending its reach to support these important groups.

Mark Powell, chief executive at the Bluetooth SIG, said: “It is inspiring to see the community’s collaboration in finding and creating innovative ways to leverage Bluetooth technology to address the COVID-19 pandemic. We are grateful for the dedication and commitment of the Bluetooth members and proud of their work on this important effort.”

It may be a while before the spec is put into use, however. The Bluetooth group only expects to have an initial draft spec ready in the “next few months,” and it will take time after that before wearables support exposure alerts.