Universities developing app to 'monitor' users' COVID-19 'risk'
- The University of Southern California, Emory University, and the University of Texas are creating a mobile app that uses location data and symptoms to trace the coronavirus.
- Users' coronavirus "risk" will "monitored" using, among other factors, their location data.
The University of Southern California, the University of Texas Health Science Center, and Emory University are developing a coronavirus tracing app that will use location data and symptoms to track the spread of the virus.
The schools received more than $150,000 in federal funding from the National Science Foundation for the project, titled REACT: Real-time Contact Tracing and Risk Monitoring via Privacy-enhanced Mobile Tracking.
Cyrus Shahabi, a computer science and electrical engineering and spatial science professor at USC who is leading the research at USC, said the hope is to have the app ready for the upcoming fall semester. Shahabi indicated to dot.LA that, ideally, users with high-risk will isolate or test themselves for the virus. The scores could also help determine infection hotspots.
The app is already facing criticism from one privacy advocate.
Bennett Cyphers, a technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told dot.LA that “there’s several red flags” with the project.
“When you introduce 'scoring' that takes other factors into account, it complicates everything, and increases the risk that users will be misinformed or discriminated against due to factors beyond their control," Cyphers said. Cyphers specifically took issue with how he says the app will use GPS technology to be able to trace the location of users down to a 15 feet radius.
"Even if I just stay in my house all day, there are probably hundreds of people within a thousand feet of me that I never interact with," he said.
Shahabi seemed to dismiss privacy concerns by telling the outlet there should be “a careful balance or privacy protection with public health benefits.” The NSF's description states, "to enhance privacy, users can control and refine the frequency and granularity with which their information will be collected and used." However, as Cyphers pointed out, the data could be unreliable if it is not precise.
Shahabi said that the app’s planned ability to create community risk assessments using artificial intelligence would ease concerns and would also be less concerning than the Google and Apple coronavirus tracing technology.
The two technology giants recently announced they would partner together to use Bluetooth to trace contact with the virus.
UCLA infectious disease expert also cautioned on the privacy front, saying, "we generally feel that voluntary notification where we educate people and empower them with tools to do the notification themselves is the most effective (way) and we've built digital tools for them to use over the past few decades." But, he warned, "it's going to be difficult to get Americans to agree to involuntary surveillance."