John Werner LF ’09 along with MIT Researchers Launch Location-Tracking Effort for the New Coronavirus
John Werner LF ’09 and a team of MIT researchers have launched a mobile app called Private Kit: Safe Paths, to track COVID-19 patients via their phones by sharing information about their movements in a privacy-preserving way—and could let health officials tackle coronavirus hot spots. This could potentially be the first large-scale project in the U.S. to trace their movement and that of those with whom they interact. As reported in The Wall Street Journal, “the project requires both people who have the illness caused by the novel coronavirus and those who don’t to voluntarily download an app to their phones. Researchers have said that the collected data is scrambled so that individuals can’t be identified and such measures are aimed at alleviating the privacy concerns that in the U.S. have surrounded the prospect of this type of surveillance.” Researchers said they are in negotiations for backing from the World Health Organization about how the technology should be deployed. They also are working with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and have had several conversations with the White House, according to people familiar with the matter.
The MIT project’s success is dependent on amassing a large number of participants, and whether that is attainable in the U.S. isn’t yet clear. The MIT effort comes as a host of startups and researchers are racing to develop new technology to fight various aspects of the novel coronavirus. The MIT research group says it is also joining with big tech companies and large health-care systems, such as the Mayo Clinic and the Big Four accounting firm Ernst & Young, to aggregate as much data as possible through the app, called Private Kit. Several Facebook Inc. engineers are donating their time to the project, which is led by Ramesh Raskar, a former Facebook executive who also worked at Alphabet Inc.’s Google X unit.
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