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Over 45,000 people signed up for the Utah Contact Finder,since its release in late April, the developers of the application told CNBC. This represents about 2% of the state’s population, but could still be useful to the state health service as it tries to track and notify people who may have been exposed.
Digital contact tracking is a new practice that uses software that collects signals from smartphones to track and slow the spread of the coronavirus. When the Utah app was launched, Governor Gary Herbert said in a report that the application would allow Utah to “fight epidemics with a targeted approach instead of generalized guidelines for home care”.
In the United States, Utah is one of the only a few states to publicly approve contact tracking apps for iPhones and Android phones and there is no national public strategy. State adoption rate suggests that getting people to download US contact tracing apps can be a challenge, as other states plan to track European and Asian countries and publish their own applications.
Built by a social media start-up
Healthy Together was built by Twenty, a social media start-up that previously built awho helps young people . After the pandemic started, the state of Utah contacted the company, the founders said. With their staff of around 50 employees, they reoriented their social media-oriented technology for contact tracing in three weeks.
The goal is to assist Utah Department of Health officials to locate contacts in person. Utah currently has 1,200 contact tracers who call people who test positive for their whereabouts and who they have been with in the past 14 days to ultimately isolate those at high risk for Covid-19 infection. The founders of Vingt say the system will improve the time to trace a patient’s positive contacts from a phone call from one hour to about 16 minutes.
“Our goal is not to replace what public health is. It is to increase their existing efforts,” said Twenty CEO Diesel Peltz.
For the moment, the Healthy Together application is still being tested and contact tracers cannot use the data collected. But Vared Chief Strategy Officer Jared Allgood explains how it will end up working:
“Jeff and Sarah are two individuals in this example who don’t know each other, but they both have the app on their phones. So both phones are transmitting Bluetooth and GPS signals,” said Allgood. “Using this data, we can identify whether two people have spent time together or not.”
App users can find a test via the Healthy Together app, if they are in Utah. Users can also get their test results in the app. Then they receive an invitation in the app to share their location history and contact history for the past 14 days with a contact tracer.
“If public health calls someone who has the application on their phone and has granted permission to see this minimal data set to make the effort of finding contacts, now, instead of spending an hour , you know, interview Jeff and try to fill the gaps in his memory, they can go through his location history list together, “said Allgood.
Twenty hopes to eventually sell the app and back-end to other states, as well as to private companies who want to track employee contacts, which could be a multi-billion dollar industry.
Some estimates suggest that contact tracing needsto download a contact tracking application for it to be effective. But Tom Hudachko, a spokesperson for the Utah Department of Health, said that the way the Utah app is configured means it doesn’t need a large percentage of the population to download it to be useful.
“Basically what will happen is that if a user of the application is positive, they will be able to share their location history with the contact tracer working on their case,” said Hudachko. “If you are able to share your location history, if you have used the app, this provides a good guide for this discussion.”
Utah governor’s office has spent $ 2.75 million on the application and other improvements, and will pay $ 300,000 a month in maintenance fees, public documents say., a website dedicated to local politics.
Reject the Apple-Google approach
Utah’s approach contrasts with decentralized and anonymous systems supported by Apple and Google and several European countries. These systems cannot provide information to public health services. Instead, they send alerts directly between phones to tell people if they may have been exposed and rely on users to contact health services if they have a positive result.
Privacy and security technologists are generally concerned about contact tracking applications because they collect data from people you know and have met. There are concerns that the data may be stolen or used by unscrupulous governments for purposes unrelated to public health, or that the technology may “creep” into a larger surveillance system.
“We want people to be able to use technology safely, especially when it comes to contact tracing,” said Kelvin Coleman, president of the National Cyber Security Alliance. “But I have to be honest, the privacy part is much worse for me, and that” creep “is absolutely what keeps me awake at night.”
The founders of Twenty say the app is fully opt-in and that users can choose to limit permissions such as GPS or Bluetooth on their phones if they don’t want their location tracked. The user also has the choice to share their location data with the public health department if it is positive, and all Bluetooth or GPS data is deleted after 30 days, said Twenty.
“We have explicitly limited ourselves and the state of the use of all data shared by Utah for public health and COVID-19 research,” said Peltz.