COLUMBIA — A COVID-19 cellphone app being tested by the Medical University of South Carolina is designed to alert people if they’ve been exposed to the virus without storing their data or using satellites to track their movements, university officials told state senators Wednesday.
Senators gave their blessing for initial testing at Clemson University this fall after getting repeated assurances the app is completely voluntary and won’t personally identify anyone.
“This is exposure notification, not contact tracing,” Clemson President James Clements told the panel.
As designed, if people who voluntarily participate test positive for COVID-19, they’ll be notified through the app. If they decide “for the greater good” to share that, the people they’ve recently spent time with — provided they’ve downloaded the app too — will be notified they could be infected and may want to get tested. They won’t be told who exposed them or where exactly, said Russ Kuarlato, Clemson’s chief information officer.
Instead, it will say “you were in close proximity within this date and time,” he said.
Users can turn the app on and off at any point — as easily as putting a smartphone in airplane mode — and can decide not to share their test results, he said.
Officials stressed that merely walking by someone who later tests positive won’t prompt an alert.
“In an anonymous manner, it doesn’t identify who you are but knows who you were near, for how long and when,” MUSC President David Cole said.
The idea is to notify people sooner they may be infected, so they make better, informed decisions that curtail spread. Testing is currently in “phase zero,” to make sure the app actually does what it’s supposed to do, which will likely continue for several more weeks, he said.
University officials gave no timeline for the testing on Clemson’s campus or when the app might be available for other South Carolinians to download, if the pilot goes well.
Normally, college research projects aren’t brought before legislators for approval. But officials wanted to assure legislators before proceeding that they’re working within a ban inserted into a June law allocating $1.2 billion in federal coronavirus aid.
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While providing $42 million for statewide testing and monitoring, legislators concerned about how Big Tech gathers, stores and sells people’s data through their smartphones added a clause specifying that cellphone apps can’t be used for contact tracing. Any automatic collecting and storing of people’s whereabouts to figure out who’s potentially infected became a no-no.
On Wednesday, senators said surely somebody, somewhere has to know who the user is for the app to work.
But Kuarlato insisted that’s not the case, drawing a distinction between the Bluetooth technology this app uses and GPS used by most others. Instead of using satellites to track movement, it uses an algorithm to assign random numbers to people in close proximity that stay only in their phones and automatically disappear after 14 days.
That coincides with the length of time it can take who someone who contracts the virus to show symptoms, though most people do so within five days, if they do at all. Half of those who get it are asymptomatic, according to health officials.
“Think of how many times you’ve downloaded an app and it says, ‘allow us to send you notifications,’ and you click ‘yes.’ That is GPS. That is basically contact tracing. That’s allowing others, globally, to look at what you’re doing,” Kuarlato said. “This is specific to the individual, and you have full control to opt in or out. It’s a close proximity device that measures between two points.”
While the committee didn’t actually approve the project, senators voted to update their colleagues when the Legislature returns next month about the collaboration and how it doesn’t violate the law’s constraints — which is the signal the colleges needed.
“So everybody has to be a willing party. There’s a big difference between the notification aspect versus it being contact tracing,” said Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla. “That is a huge distinguishing factor in what this technology is and what it is not.”
Sen. Gerald Malloy, on the other hand, asked why Clemson shouldn’t require students to download the app, if the effectiveness depends on widespread use.
For young, healthy people highly unlikely to get seriously ill, “What’s the incentive?” asked the Hartsville Democrat. “They’re going to bounce right back. But they’re going to be carriers. … Why not mandate it?”
Clements called that “a different kind of discussion.” For the testing phase, participation is totally voluntary for anyone on campus, he said.
Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.