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MIT’s coronavirus-tracking app could be a game-changer — if it goes viral

man checking phone with mask on
Milorad Kravic / Getty Images

The notion of something going viral doesn’t have quite the same positive connotation in March 2020 that it did in, well, virtually any other month in living memory. But teams at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that created a new coronavirus-busting app are hoping for virality for their creation. In fact, they’re banking on it.

Like the software version of herd immunity, their new app, Private Kit: Safe Paths, and an associated web tool called SafePlaces could help slow the spread of COVID-19. But — and this is the part that would have Alanis Morissette scratching her head over trace levels of irony — only if enough people contract it. Or, more accurately, start using it.

They’re hoping that the viral spreadability of an idea, the essence of what Richard Dawkins termed a “meme,” can outpace, or at least equal, the spreadability of an actual virus.

“The user-adoption strategy will leverage network effects,” Ramesh Raskar, associate professor at MIT Media Lab, told Digital Trends. “We are not building a stand-alone app, but also a web tool for health authorities to disseminate privatized trails. So we will use this two-sided network effect to first push the health players in focused localized sites, and then let users nudge their acquaintances so collectively they have a ‘peace-of-mind.’ Finally, we have deeply engaged large influential organizations who can push their captive user base for their own survival.”

They’re hoping that the viral spreadability of an idea can outpace the spreadability of an actual virus.

The idea of the Private Kit: Safe Paths project is this: You use an open-source app that tracks where you go and who you meet along that journey. This is, of course, little different to what ad-driven, data-mining companies have been doing for profit for years. But the difference is that this location data is shared with other users to help cut down on the spread of COVID-19. Individuals who test positive can elect to share their location data with health officials, who can then make it public to other users. Through integration with the web tool SafePlaces, the Private Kit: Safe Paths app discloses when and where infected patients were in proximity to others.

By carrying out this contact tracing, the hope is that Private Kit: Safe Paths could help “flatten the curve” of coronavirus spread. It will aim to achieve this in a data-driven manner, hopefully with the effect of lessening hysteria, by allowing those who have been exposed and are exhibiting symptoms to make more informed decisions on when they should seek out testing or decide to self-quarantine. But it will only work as a a comprehensive tracking tool if enough people use it.

The trouble with privacy

The biggest issue with approaches such as this involves privacy. The hope of containing a contagion is at the center of many efforts to quell an epidemic. That means rapid identification and quarantine of infected individuals. This approach has led to similar apps being developed in countries such as China, both by state officials and private companies. If infected individuals can be quickly pinpointed, they can be removed from the group, thereby reducing the risk of their spreading the virus.

Private Kit: Safe Paths

But no matter how serious the current epidemic, such privacy-challenging approaches aren’t likely to be met with positivity by many Western users. Violating user privacy is a concern at the best of times. In scenarios such as this, it could be used to expand mass surveillance programs, limit individual freedoms, and share sensitive (socially compromising) data about individuals. In short, this is not the best of times.

Fortunately, Private Kit: Safe Paths has been built from the ground up with privacy in mind. Raskar and his team at the Camera Culture Lab at MIT have been working on privacy-preserving technologies for a long time. A white paper that accompanies the Private Kit: Safe Paths project is titled “Apps Gone Rogue: Maintaining Personal Privacy in an Epidemic.” It is being built by people who care deeply about protecting individuals, not just from the threat of coronavirus, but the insipid creep of crisis-induced privacy erosion.

It is being built by people who care deeply about protecting individuals, not just from the threat of coronavirus, but the insipid creep of crisis-induced privacy erosion.

In the case of Private Kit: Safe Paths, location data is encrypted between phones in the network, without a centralized authority. You can see if you’ve crossed paths with a person with coronavirus — so long as that person has shared their positive status — but you don’t know who the person is. As far as individuals go, location data is stored locally on the phone and never decrypted. The app only downloads the trail of infected patients, with no identifying information sent out. These GPS trails are never released in the public domain in raw form, only encrypted and in redacted versions. In other words, you won’t see individuals; you’ll only see areas of high risk.

The network effect

All of this sounds promising as a possible solution. But, as with many aspects of the coronavirus outbreak, the truly unpredictable bit is whether it can catch on with enough users willing to do this kind of self-reporting and engage in civic-minded causes to be effective. The network effect Raskar refers to is well-known among the tech community. It describes a phenomenon whereby a service becomes more valuable the more people use it. Social media sites, for instance, attract more users by having more users. A service like Twitter becomes exponentially more useful for sharing information when there are more users to share it with.

Networks effects are also found in medicine. Vaccines, for instance, benefit from the network effect. The more people that have vaccinations for a certain communicable disease (which, sadly, does not yet include COVID-19), the chance that an individual will contract that infection diminishes.

Raskar believes that the team’s data-driven approach will help the fight against coronavirus. Not only will it mean a more informed citizenry, but it could also allow only specific areas to be closed off for disinfecting purposes. That could be beneficial for both the economy and humans.

But first, the app will have to run the race of its life to beat a rapidly spreading pandemic. “The support of the local civic and health care authorities will drive the initial adoption among users,” Raskar said. After that? It’s up to users and the network effect.

Private Kit: Safe Paths is available to download for iOS and Android. Both versions are prototypes, with significant upgrades due to be released this week.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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