There's an app for that: Universities, profs develop modern tools to trace COVID-19

As these apps are developed, issues of user privacy are emerging as a significant concern.

Colleges are exploring the possibilities of using technology in coronavirus contact tracing and symptom tracking as they prepare to bring students and employees back to campus.

As the number of coronavirus deaths continue a weeks-long downward trend, the recent number of cases across the country have begun to spike, just weeks before colleges had hoped to bring students back to campus in the fall. 

Since March, universities have been weighing possible solutions to contain coronavirus outbreaks amid returning student populations. Since a vaccine has yet to be made available, universities and researchers have begun developing contact tracing smartphone apps. While these apps are to be used to notify students at risk of being infected, privacy concerns have surfaced regarding location sharing. 

The University of Arizona is the first to test a newly created app assembled by researchers located throughout the U.S. and internationally, though led by UA faculty. Covid Watch allows campus community members to anonymously notify one another if they have been exposed to COVID-19. 

A representative for the university told Campus Reform that the school is still assessing whether the service will be ready for use in the fall. 

Regarding concerns about user privacy, the spokesperson said that phones with the app communicate via anonymous Bluetooth signals and do not share personal or identifiable information. 

“The app does not collect location data,” and “the app will be voluntary, opt-in, and allows users to maintain their anonymity,” the spokesperson said.

[RELATED: Mizzou students required to install location tracking app so college can ‘pinpoint’ them]

Yale University researchers are working on creating an app, Hunala, which requests daily updates from users and uses the data to assess coronavirus risk locally. A university press release states that Hunala is designed to protect user privacy. Nicholas Christakis, a Yale professor who headed the research, said in an emailed statement to Campus Reform that the app only uses the location of a user once per day when the user logs on to report symptoms or to check their risk: “It does NOT track user locations in the background.”

Yale has not yet confirmed to Campus Reform whether the university would be able to make use of the Hunala app in the fall. 

Joined by a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania and a team of Microsoft volunteers, researchers at the University of Washington have created CovidSafe, an app pitched as designed not to compromise personal privacy. When asked about whether the school would be implementing the use of this app on campus, the university told Campus Reform that for now, the technology is still being tested. 

UW is working with the state and the developers of the app to set up a small research pilot for this purpose, which a spokesperson described as “opt-in” and clarified that “we won’t be making any determinations on broader use of the technology, including use for the fall quarter, until after the pilot.” 

[RELATED: Universities developing app to ‘monitor’ users’ COVID-19 ‘risk’]

The University of Pennsylvania announced its own plan to bring students back to campus in the fall, including daily wellness tracks, restrictions on travel, contact tracing, and a panel to discipline students who violate a “Student Campus Compact.” According to a university email that detailed the return to instruction, students will have to affirm the Student Campus Compact before returning to the university.

The compact asks students to collaborate with the university daily on a mobile app called PennOpen Pass. The app will ask students to trace their contacts should they get sick and monitor their own symptoms “as part of [their] public service” in protecting other students. In addition to mandating that students wear facemasks at all times when leaving their places of residence, the compact asks students to maintain social distance, avoid crowds of more than 25 people, and be up-to-date with all necessary vaccines.

All students will be tested for COVID-19 when they arrive on campus, and a testing center will remain open throughout the semester. 

The compact outlines penalties for violations, stating, “I further agree that violations of the Compact may also be grounds for disciplinary review and action by the Office of Student Conduct.” 

According to the Penn Open Pass privacy statement, “responses will be maintained in Penn’s secure information systems, with access limited to those engaged in health and safety functions for Penn or in administering this program, all on a need-to-know basis.”The statement says that only public health officials will be able to access personally identifiable information for certain reasons and that “the PennOpen Pass program will never be able to directly access any of your digital location information or contacts.”

”Personally identifying information for each day’s symptom survey will be retained for 30 days at which time it will be securely deleted unless otherwise required by law, so that the answers will no longer be associated with you,” the Penn Open Pass privacy statement says. 

[RELATED: UT will require students receive flu shots, COVID-19 vaccines]

At NYU’s College of Dentistry, researchers have created an app which “uses artificial intelligence (AI) to assess risk factors and key biomarkers from blood tests, producing a COVID-19 ‘severity score.’” Patients input their “biomarkers and risk factors” into the app which then produces a “severity score ranging from 0 (mild or moderate) to 100 (critical).”

Students attending New York University must fill out a questionnaire provided by the school’s app; based upon answers to the questionnaire, individuals will either be allowed or denied access into university buildings. If someone is at risk of spreading the virus, the app will notify them “to stay home until they are cleared by the NYU Prevention & Response Team.”

John T. McDevitt, professor in the Department of Biomaterials at NYU, told Campus Reform, “our app is not intended to track student locations. Rather, our app calculated disease severity for patients that become COVID-19 positive.”

Similarly, students at Columbia University may be prevented from going to campus if symptoms self-reported through the school’s app, ReopenCU, suggest coronavirus risk. Individuals will be given a “24-hour ‘green’ pass” if the self-check determines that they are not infected with the virus. Otherwise, people who “receive a ‘red pass’” will not be permitted onto the campus grounds. 

Regarding privacy concerns surrounding location tracking, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) writes that “informed, voluntary, and opt-in consent is the fundamental requirement for any application that tracks a user’s interactions with others in the physical world.”

It suggests several guidelines for maintaining user privacy, including giving individuals the ability to turn off tracking apps, deleting data when it is no longer relevant, storing information on personal devices rather than on servers run by the application developer or a public health entity,  and avoiding the collection of any information not related to proximity tracking (such as individual health records).

“While it may be tempting to mandate use of a contact tracing app, the interference with personal autonomy is unacceptable,” EFF says. “Public health requires trust between public health officials and the public, and fear of surveillance may cause individuals to avoid testing and treatment.” 

Researchers at other schools that have announced plans to develop contact tracing technologies include Boise State, Boston University, Brown, University of Buffalo, Florida International, Skidmore, and the University of California-Davis.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @KestecherLacey, @mariatcopeland, and @BenZeisloft