Andrew Frame launched Citizen in 2017, merging 911-dispatch data and your smartphone’s GPS location to alert you about nearby dangers—fires, robberies, car crashes, assaults. Now he’s betting Citizen’s mobile technology, location capabilities, and network of millions of users can warn you about possible Covid-19 exposure. “We’re all at war. Right now, the only weapon we have is staying home,” says Frame, 40, in an interview over Zoom. “The question is, are there better ones we can use in this war?”
As the U.S. economy reopens amid spiking Covid-19 cases and surging protests, Frame has launched a new digital tool to warn you of possible contact with the coronavirus. Called SafeTrace, the mobile contact tracer uses both Bluetooth and GPS location data to automatically keep tabs on who you’ve been with and where you’ve been. If another SafeTrace user with whom you’ve had close contact reports an infection, you receive an alert detailing the exact time and place of the potential exposure.
The SafeTrace tool will live within the Citizen app, which has more than 5 million users across 18 U.S. cities—many that are Covid-19 hotspots. Two million New Yorkers, nearly 20% of the population, use Citizen. The SafeTrace feature launched today for Android users (the latest Citizen version is available free via Google Play). IPhone users will have to wait for the virus tracker—Apple has yet to approve the new tool.Most Popular In: Innovation
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The combo of Bluetooth and GPS data makes SafeTrace both potentially powerful— and controversial. As the second wave of virus outbreaks flare up around the U.S., health officials are clamoring for a technology that can pinpoint Covid-19 cases down to a street address. But for privacy advocates, and millions of potential users, a system that tracks where you go and who you’re with is worrisome—even if the data is anonymized and scrubbed. The privacy fear is heightened as thousands of protests against the murder of George Floyd, the unequal treatment of black people, and systemic racism.
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In April, tech giants Apple AAPL and Google GOOGL won praise after announcing they had partnered to build a smartphone system to help track infections. But the pair has since drawn criticism from medical experts after they banned the use of GPS location data in the system. Apple and Google execs worry that collecting location could violate user’s privacy. Some health officials say that without the data, the tracking technology is useless.
Contract tracing is a just jargony way to describe retracing your steps. Combined with widespread testing, the monitoring of people who have been exposed to the virus, and who they might have infected, is an essential part of reopening society.
The current tracing landscape in the U.S. is a fragmented mess. India, Australia, and Singapore have launched national apps to help centralized teams track and alert potential virus carriers. But the U.S. hasn’t built a unified system and instead has left tracing up to the states. Current situation: 50 states and nearly 50 different systems. Many programs depend on one-on-one interviews that rely on unreliable human memory.
Citizen’s SafeTrace technology automates contact mapping and threat alerts. After you opt-in, the app uses Bluetooth technology to keep tabs on other users you’ve been near. Bluetooth uses low energy radio waves to transfer data over short distances, about ten feet. That’s roughly the transmission range of coronavirus droplets, making Bluetooth an ideal technology for logging possible exposure to the virus.
If you test positive for Covid-19, you upload to SafeTrace a photo of your results (to reduce the risk of false alarms and pranks). After a Citizen employee verifies the test results, the app alerts every user who has recently been in close contact with you. Bluetooth determines if you have been with a coronavirus carrier. GPS data adds the when and where providing crucial context and delivering essential data about virus hotspots and transmission risk.
Frame argues that without GPS providing time and place, an alert of a possible Covid-19 exposure can seem vague and abstract. Many people will shrug it off. But a warning that you were exposed to the virus at 10:00 pm during a friend’s birthday party makes the threat real, actionable and urgent. It’s more likely you’ll isolate, you’ll take a test.
And not only you. Thanks to the GPS data, now everyone at the party—the hosts, the guests, the caterers, the sitter who was watching your kids—will know that Covid was at the birthday too. The entire group, even those without the Citizen app, can get notified, tested, and isolate, extinguishing a potential flare-up and preventing asymptomatic carriers from further spreading the disease.
Any program that tracks your location, movements, social interactions and health sparks a storm of privacy concerns. A recent Washington Post/University of Maryland poll found that 50% of smartphone users wouldn’t use a tracking app run by Apple and Google.
Frame is well aware of the privacy concerns. A reformed hacker who, as a teenager, got busted by the FBI for breaking into NASA computers, Frame later helped build Facebook’s first network infrastructure and founded publicly-traded communication company Ooma OOMA. Frame says that user data on SafeTrace is anonymous, encrypted, and erased after thirty days. He adds that Citizen has millions of users who already trust the company with their location data—Citizen recently became the top news app as more than 600,000 people joined the app as protests gripped the nation. Citizen doesn’t make money from advertisements or selling customer data. Frame vows that SafeTrace will not share user information with government agencies without a user’s consent.
Moreover, Frame says he’s forming a nonprofit organization that will house SafeTrace data and partner with other secure tracing programs. “For effective national tracking, the U.S. needs more than 60% of the population participating. That’s not going to come from one app or one system,” says Frame. “We’re open to working with other programs that use anonymous and secure data to build safe, open-source, national tracing system.”
After the national launch, Frame says SafeTrace’s second phase will integrate testing directly into the app. He’s currently in talks with medical companies to let SafeTrace users order at-home Covid-19 tests straight from the app. Under the plan, a positive test would automatically trigger alerts on the phones of other users who were near an infected person. At-risk users could then order tests too. “Testing leads to tracing, which leads to more testing and more tracing,” says Frame. “It’s using healthcare and technology to create an anti-viral network effect.”