Port: Let's temper some of the outrage about the Care19 app's data sharing
MINOT, N.D. — Suffice it to say that I haven't been impressed with the Care19 app.
That's the Android and iPhone application developed by some friends of Gov. Doug Burgum at Fargo-based ProudCrowd to help with contact tracing in North and South Dakota during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The degree to which Burgum has enmeshed the app in his administration's pandemic response policies has been unseemly, and I'm not convinced that the data it collects is particularly useful. As I mentioned in my last mailbag column , the online reviews for the app are chock-full of people saying that it doesn't accurately capture their locations.
What good is that?
Now the app has come under fire after a report from a privacy research firm (a bit of a misnomer, more on that in a moment) accused it of covertly sharing data with another service.
Specifically, Foursquare, which makes its money from tracing the places people visit.
A lot of people are upset about this news, but there is some context we need to keep in perspective.
First, while the ProudCrowd folks absolutely should have been more transparent about their partnership with Foursquare, they say the point of the data sharing was to use Foursquare's database of locations to put names on the places you visit. This allows Care19 to give you a list of business and place names in your location history as opposed to something like GPS coordinates.
This wasn't a business relationship. Foursquare allows free access to their database -- they call it Pilgrim SDK -- for developers of other apps. ProudCrowd took advantage of that free access. Foursquare is not storing the data Care19 is sending, nor is the company using it in any way.
Second, let's remember that Jumbo Privacy, the firm which produced this report, is not free of remunerative motivations. Their business model is built around an app as well -- one which will supposedly protect you from other apps stealing your data. If Jumbo can issue a report scaring the public about data privacy, they can motivate more downloads of their app.
That's not to say that Jumbo's criticisms are necessarily invalid, but if that company wants transparency for the motivations of companies like ProudCrowd, let's be clear about their motives as well.
Finally, consider this: If you used Google today, if you accessed Twitter or Facebook to vent about something (like, perhaps, what you just learned about the Care19 app), those companies likely added to their collection of data about you far more than Care19 will ever collect.
I don't believe Care19 is selling anyone's data, because that data has already been collected and monetized by tech industry behemoths far better at it than ProudCrowd will ever be. That's a cynical view, perhaps, but it's also reality.
The Care19 app was well-intentioned. It was created on the fly in a moment of crisis as a way to help our health officials and political leaders make better decisions.
Unfortunately, it was poorly executed.
But the cost is minimal. It didn't collect any data from the public, which we haven't already willingly given up just by owning a smartphone and using services like Google and Facebook. Also, the cost to the taxpayers is minimal. ProudCrowd got a contract with the State of North Dakota for about $9,000 and negotiated a similar deal with South Dakota.
There is going to be some political haymaking over this, but in the end, there is nothing particularly nefarious here—just something which started with the best of intentions that didn't quite work out as expected.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at email@example.com .