LSU researchers have created a mobile phone app to track the coronavirus and alert people who may have been exposed to COVID.

The GeauxTrace app uses the signal strength of Bluetooth software, which is common on most cell phones, computers and other devices, to gauge the distance between cell phones. Users who were in the vicinity of someone who recently tested positive for COVID are informed of the possible exposure.

The COVID pandemic has spurred urgent demand for “contact tracing apps.” The goal is to allow people to exit as usual and to quarantine themselves only when they know they have been exposed.

Google, Apple, and other tech companies have already created their own cellphone-based tracking apps, often using Bluetooth as well.

Lu Peng, professor of electricity and computer science at LSU, began developing the app in January with a group of undergraduate and graduate students. It’s part of a $ 888,642 grant from the National Institutes of Health, university officials said.

Peng said he sued the app, which recently completed testing by a group of volunteer users, in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19.

“We are trying to make a contribution to the community,” Peng said.

People who use GeauxTrace are told of a positive test if their cell phone is at least six feet from a person who tested positive in the past 14 days. The close contact must have lasted at least 15 minutes, Peng said.

Cell phones have become an increasingly important tool for law enforcement to track suspected criminals, usually after obtaining a court order. Many business apps also track the location of their users, often for mundane purposes, such as showing where the nearest cafes and restaurants are, and only after a user has granted permission.

But privacy advocates often criticize the potential abuse of location-based apps.

Peng said that the GeauxTrace app has a number of safeguards to protect user privacy.

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Each user is assigned a random number that is not linked to their cell phone number, but to the login identity that people have provided. To create this identity, users do not have to provide their cell phone numbers, personal email addresses, or other identifying information.

The random number is broadcast in the background to create a virtual card. This internal electronic map does not show the actual location of someone’s cell phone in Baton Rouge or any other place, but the relative distances between cell phones using the app as well.

“We don’t use Bluetooth to detect the position,” Peng said.

Once a positive test is reported, people nearby are informed via the app simply that they have been in contact with a person who tested positive without knowing who or exactly when or where.

The data is also encrypted and spread across multiple servers to avoid the risk of hackers logging into a single machine and stealing health information, Peng said.

Despite these measures, some privacy advocates have suggested the app needs more protections.

Jon Callas, director of technology projects for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, noted that the app relies on self-reporting by users to publicize a positive test, leaving open the possibility of malicious self-reporting. to scare or discover other people.

“Someone could falsely report positives, see who (GeauxTrace) has connected to and, thus, learn things,” he said.

The San Francisco, Calif., Nonprofit where Callas works, advocates for privacy and other civil liberties in the digital world.

Callas also argued that the app could be more secure if its random ID numbers changed repeatedly and data was stored on individual phones instead of just servers.

Peng said the app relies on self-reporting due to federal privacy laws. He said the app’s protections were strong enough to give users confidence that their data would not be abused.

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