Citizen App’s New Contact Tracing Feature Raises Privacy Red Flags

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Benjamin Powers Citizen App’s New Contact Tracing Feature Raises Privacy Red Flags Citizen , the mobile application that alerts its more than two million users to crime and disaster around them, has launched a contact tracing functionality, called SafeTrace , in the fight against the coronavirus. Now it’s just a matter of the New York City-based startup finding a customer for the product, which has raised privacy red flags among civil liberty lawyers and technologists. A review of internal Citizen documents and the privacy policy related to the contact tracing function gave privacy advocates plenty of causes for concern. These included how data collected through contact tracing would be used and shared via both GPS and Bluetooth proximity tracking. Joshua Simmons, vice president and board member of the Open Source Initiative, which promotes and protects open source software, said the GPS function was “too much” and “totally unnecessary for contact tracing.” Vigilante by name The Citizen app was launched in 2016 under the name “Vigilante,” but pulled back and rebranded as Citizen after concerns the original name might encourage users to seek out and intervene in crimes (for which it got it briefly kicked off of the Apple app store). Today, Citizen uses proprietary technology, along with human volunteers, to report incidents by monitoring police scanners. It also lets users stream video of incidents, and comment on videos, in a way that resembles social media. As these incidents are reported, Citizen sends alerts to users in close proximity to the incidents, determined by the location of the users' smartphones. Citizen was developed by Sp0n, Inc. Citizen is a private, for-profit company funded by venture capital firms including Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund and Sequoia Capital, to the tune of over $60 million, according to Crunchbase , a platform that tracks startup funding. Contact tracing, or the process of ascertaining whom people infected with COVID-19 might have come into contact with during the period in which they were contagious, has traditionally been done by a human interviewer. But to address the pandemic, multiple groups have been working on ways to use smartphones to track that contact. While countries including Israel are using GPS tracking, and nations including China are coupling this technology with facial recognition that claims to detect fevers, concerns over privacy have led the United States and European Union (EU) to consider less-invasive measures. See also: European Contact Tracing Consortium Faces Wave of Defections Over Centralization Concerns In multiple EU countries, the protocol on which contact tracing apps would be built is based on Bluetooth proximity tracing, with data processed locally on devices, not stored on a central server. A central server makes the data collected not just a target for hacks, but also government surveillance. In the U.S., Apple and Google have said they will launch updates to their operating systems that will allow apps to use Bluetooth proximity tracing, but have explicitly said they will not allow location tracking because of privacy concerns. Google and Apple have faced criticism from the French government , which pushed them to alter their protocols, because it wanted to add more data-gathering functions to any prospective contact tracing app. Apple and Google have not backed down, though, and EU countries including Germany, Italy and the Netherlands have come around to the tech firms' decentralized and minimalist approach.
GPS data tracking a person’s movements is very revealing, and difficult to effectively anonymize. But the final apps people will opt into for contact tracing in the U.S. are still in development, for the most part, with little known publicly about them. That includes projects pursued by federal or state governments as well private companies like Citizen. With the onus on states to take on the lion’s share of the COVID-19 response, app makers have tended to work with local health organizations. Given that a recent study has suggested such contact tracing apps would need a 60 percent participation rate to be effective , trust in these apps, and the necessity of the data they collect, is key. If the documents obtained by CoinDesk that outline Citizen’s contact tracing program and its public privacy policy are any indication, according to privacy advocates, that trust is going to be hard to achieve. One Citizen employee, who asked not to be named out of fear of reprisal, said that “move fast, fix it later” is part of the company’s culture. CoinDesk has reached out to Citizen repeatedly by email and via social media. We have yet to receive a response to inquiries about its contact tracing program. GPS data makes the system more invasive An internal slide deck entitled “COVID-19 Contact Tracing – Product Story for External Share” outlines the proprietary technology Citizen uses for the SafeTrace functionality in its app. In an apparent p...