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Privacy concerns may delay SD researchers' contact tracing smartphone app

Posted at 6:32 PM, Aug 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-04 21:32:43-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Researchers at UC San Diego Health say they can make a COVID-19 contact tracing app for smartphones but the technology may be getting pushback because of privacy concerns.

On Tuesday, ABC10 News spoke to UC San Diego Health Chief Information Officer Dr. Christopher Longhurst about the app that he's offered to develop and study for San Diego County.

"From a University of California stand point, we're comfortable endorsing this as an appropriate means of helping control this pandemic more quickly while preserving the privacy of our citizens," he told ABC10 News.

He said the app would look a lot like Canada's app which was released last Friday. Using a tool created by Apple and Google, it produces random codes and uses Bluetooth to ping other users' phones and share those codes when two people are physically close to each other. "So, the idea is that if I were diagnosed with COVID-19, I would then be given a code [and voluntarily opt in to] put that code into my exposure notification app and that would let other people know who had been near me that they might have been exposed and should be tested," he added.

ABC10 News asked Dr. Longhurst about what situations could make it more effective than using human contact tracers. "Contact tracing is a methodology that's been around for 50 years and we've used it for sexually transmitted infections and other outbreaks. It works really well when you're talking about who you might have been intimate with. It's much harder when you think about who you breathed air with. [Additionally], there's limits to being able to actually contact those folks," he responded.

When asked about why the technology isn't being implemented in San Diego County, he told ABC10 News, "Our partners at San Diego County Public Health have been very enthusiastic about embracing this new technology but the Apple and Google API can only be used by state public health agencies so we're dependent on the state of California to approve moving this forward."

Other countries have moved forward but the U.S. has been slower. Dr. Longhurst attributes that to privacy concerns, but said the program protects anonymity and doesn't track location. "We've really closely evaluated this technology and we believe that the privacy preserving goals have been met," he added.

On Tuesday, San Diego County officials confirmed that it's the state of California's decision to go forward and added in part, "If there is an opportunity for the County to partner with the state in a pilot, we would be open to further discussions about this."

The California Department of Public Health sent the following response to ABC10 News.

"The state’s contact tracing program isn’t using contact tracing smartphone technology. Contact tracing involves notifying people who have been in close contact with an infected person to prevent the disease from spreading to others, and most of that work can be done by phone, text, email and chat.
We are aware of San Diego's interest in utilizing a contact tracing application. We continue to focus on standing up the manual contact tracing process (via phone, text, email and chat) and the data management tool that assists our contact tracing workforce."