COVID Tracing Apps: What Europe Has Done Right, And Wrong

Europe has been in COVID-containment mode for the last month, in contrast to the prior three months of serious lockdown. Kids went back to school, in shifts, and people went on vacation to countries with similarly low infection rates. Legoland and the zoo opened back up, capped at 1/3 capacity. Hardware stores and post offices are running “normally” once you’ve accommodated mandatory masks and 1.5 meter separations while standing in line as “normal”. To make up for the fact that half of the tables have to be left empty, most restaurants have sprawled out onto their terraces. It’s not really normal, but it’s also no longer horrible.

But even a country that’s doing very well like Germany, where I live, has a few hundred to a thousand new cases per day. If these are left to spread unchecked as before, the possibility of a second wave is very real, hence the mask-and-distance routine. The various European COVID-tracing apps were rolled out with this backdrop of a looming pandemic that’s tenuously under control. While nobody expects the apps to replace public distancing, they also stand to help if they can catch new and asymptomatic cases before they get passed on.

When Google and Apple introduced their frameworks for tracing apps, I took a technical look at them. My conclusion was that the infrastructure was sound, but that the implementation details would be where all of the dragons lay in wait. Not surprisingly, I was right!

Here’s an update on what’s happened in the first month of Europe’s experience with COVID-tracing apps. The good news is that the apps seem to be well written and based on the aforementioned solid foundation. Many, many people have installed at least one of the apps, and despite some quite serious growing pains, they seem to be mostly functioning as they should. The bad news is that, due to its privacy-preserving nature, nobody knows how many people have received warnings, or what effect, if any, the app is having on the infection rate. You certainly can’t see an “app effect” in the new daily cases rate. After a month of hard coding work and extreme public goodwill, it may be that cellphone apps just aren’t the panacea some had hoped.

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Don’t Worry, This Box Will Protect You From 5G!

As part of an investigation into opposition to 5G mobile phone networks in the English town of Glastonbury the BBC reporter [Rory Cellan-Jones] shared details of a so-called 5G protection device that was advertised as casting a bubble of 5G-free space around its owner. This set [The Quackometer] writing, because as part of his probing into the world of snake-oil, he’s bought just such a unit and subjected it to a teardown.

What he has is a plastic project box with a graphic on top, a switch and green LED on the side, and a battery compartment on its rear. Opening the battery compartment reveals a standard 9 V alkaline cell, but the real interest comes when the cover is removed. There is a copper cylinder with a coil of wire round it, though the wires from the coil to the battery have been cut. The active part of the device is simply a battery powering an LED through a switch, as he puts it the device is a £50 ($61) poor quality torch (flashlight). Of more interest is the copper cylinder, which he identifies as a short piece of copper water pipe with two end caps. He doesn’t open it up, leaving us to expect that whatever mystical component deals with the RF must be concealed within it. This is not the usual Hackaday fare, but we know our readers are fascinated by all new technologies and will provide plenty of speculation as to how it might work in the comments.

The BBC story is worth a read to give a little background. If you are a non-Brit and you have heard of Glastonbury it is probably for the famous summer music festival held on a neighbouring farm, but the town is also famous for its connections with Arthurian legend and in recent decades for having become a centre for New Age mysticism. It has also become something of a hotbed of activism against the spread of 5G mobile networks, and has made the news this week because of concerns over the impartiality of a report condemning the technology released by its local government. If you have an interest in the 5G saga then brace yourselves for this document being used to lend a veneer of official credibility.

We’ve spent a while covering 5G issues, and given that some aspects of the story are shaping up to be a gift to technical journalists that keeps on giving, no doubt we’ll bring you more in due course. Devices such as the one featured here could even supplant audiophile products as a source of technical wonderment!

Thanks [Deus Ex Silicium] for the tip.

A Microcontroller Display With A Classic Twist

In a fit of lock-down-induced boredom, [Peter Z] has turned his smartphone into an LCD screen (simulation) via an Android app (German language, Google Translate link), so that a mobile device can be plugged into your favourite microcontroller and the classic HD44780 LCD look can be replicated on its screen.

It doesn’t speak standard HD44780, but rather a custom UART serial protocol, so if you’re looking for something to replace a busted LCD, this isn’t your bag. But if you are looking for a large UART terminal for debugging, with a nice aesthetic, you win.

We’d guess that a serial-to-Bluetooth converter could also be made to function, with a bit of work. The protocol is trivial too, meaning that almost any microcontroller could make use of it. All the code as well as the APK is available from the forum linked above, and there is a YouTube video of it in operation below.

The number one complaint in the comments is going to be that this doesn’t emulate a HD44780, so if that’s really what you want, read this deep-dive into the HD44780 and get hacking.

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Using Smartphone Cameras To Make Sure Drivers Are Looking At The Road

Most of us are probably quite aware of the damage that a car can inflict when driven by a distracted driver. In an ideal world, people who are driving a car would not allow something like their phone to distract them from their primary task of being the primary navigation system for the 1+ metric ton vehicle which they are controlling.

Many smartphone apps as well as in-car infotainment systems have added features over the years that try to prevent a driver from using them, but they run into the issue that it’s hard to distinguish between passenger and driver. As it turns out, asking the human driver whether they are the driver doesn’t always get the expected result. This is where [Rushil Khurana] and his team at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) have come up with a more fool-proof approach.

In their paper (PDF), they cover the algorithm and software implementation that uses the smartphone’s own front (selfie) and back cameras to determine from the car’s interior which side of the car the user is sitting in, and deducing from that whether the user is sitting in the driver’s seat or not.  From there it is a fairly safe assumption to make that if the user is sitting in the driver’s seat, and the car is moving, that this user should not be looking at the phone’s screen.

In a test involving 16 different cars and 33 users, they achieved an overall accuracy of 94% with the phone held in the hand, and 92.2% while docked. This is more reliable than the other approaches covered in the paper, and as a benefit does not require any extra hardware. Who knows, upcoming smartphones may include a feature like this, so that apps can easily determine what feature set should be made available to a driver, if any.

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Google And Apple Reveal Their Coronavirus Contact Tracing Plans: We Kick The Tires

Google and Apple have joined forces to issue a common API that will run on their mobile phone operating systems, enabling applications to track people who you come “into contact” with in order to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s an extremely tall order to do so in a way that is voluntary, respects personal privacy as much as possible, doesn’t rely on potentially vulnerable centralized services, and doesn’t produce so many false positives that the results are either ignored or create a mass panic. And perhaps much more importantly, it’s got to work.

Slowing the Spread

As I write this, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be just turning the corner from uncontrolled exponential growth to something that’s potentially more manageable, but it’s not clear that we yet see an end in sight. So far, this has required hundreds of millions of people to go into essentially voluntary quarantine. But that’s a blunt tool. In an ideal world, you could stop the disease globally in a couple weeks if you could somehow test everyone and isolate those who have been exposed to the virus. In the real world, truly comprehensive testing is impossible, and figuring out whom to isolate is extraordinarily difficult due to two factors: COVID-19 has a long incubation period during which it is nonetheless transmissible, and some or even most people don’t know they have it. How can you stop what you can’t see, and even when you can detect it, it’s a week too late?

One promising approach is to isolate those people who’ve been in contact with known cases during the stealth contagion period. To do this is essentially to keep a diary of everyone you’ve been in contact with for the last week or two, and then if you eventually test positive for COVID-19, alert them all so that they can keep from infecting others even before they test positive: track and trace. Doctors can do this by interviewing patients who test positive (this is the “contact tracing” we’ve been hearing so much about), but memory is imperfect. Enter a technological solution. Continue reading “Google And Apple Reveal Their Coronavirus Contact Tracing Plans: We Kick The Tires”

GSM Module Does More Than Advertised

For many projects, a WiFi connection is overkill, too complicated, or too far away to work properly. Even though it’s relatively ubiquitous, sometimes the best choice for getting data to or from the real world is a connection to the cellular network, which can be done with the M590 module for about a dollar each. For that price, lots of people have had the opportunity to explore the module itself, and [marcrbarker] shows some of the extra, unadvertised, features it has.

Acting as a GSM module that can send and receive SMS messages is just the tip of the iceberg for this tiny device which we saw once before for a DIY GPS tracker. With a USB TTL serial data module, a lot more is on the table including answering voice calls and responding with DTMF tones, operate as a dial-up modem, connect with TCP, and even has some FTP capabilities. [marcrbarker] also suggests that it could do “call pranking” where it can send signals without being charged for a call.

There are a lot of details on the project site about all of this newfound functionality, and it reminds us of a time when it was discovered that not only was the ESP8266 a cheap WiFi module, but it could also run custom programs on its own. While the M590 probably can’t do all of that, it does seem to have a lot more locked away than most of us had thought before.

Retrotechtacular: Mobile Phones 1940s Style

We think of the mobile phone — well, what we would call a cell phone — as something fairly modern. Many of us can still remember when using a ham radio phone patch from your parked car would have people staring and murmuring. But it turns out in the late 1940s, Bell Telephone offered Mobile Telephone Service (MTS). It was expensive and didn’t work as well as what we have now, but it did let you make or receive calls from your automobile. After the break, you can see a promotional film about MTS.

The service rolled out in St. Louis in the middle of 1946. The 80-pound radios went in the trunk with a remote handset wired to the dashboard. At first, there were only 3 channels but later Bell added 29 more to keep up with demand. An operator connected incoming and outbound calls and if three other people were using their mobile phones, you were out of luck.

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