Fargo app developer defends contact tracing app despite privacy concerns

Published: May. 22, 2020 at 6:47 PM CDT
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North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum is defending a contact tracing app that’s come under fire by privacy groups for sharing user data to big tech companies.

The same goes for the Fargo-based developer of the app, Tim Brookins.

Thursday night, we first told you of reports indicating the CARE19 app was sharing data to third parties.

Yet, the Republican governor on Friday said he’s supporting the app, which his health department had a hand in launching for contract tracing.

It’s an app Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said he supports.

“It's actually safer as far as tracing and knowing what you've done. But, it really helps you try to remember who you were with that day,” Mahoney said.

What the app does is let’s say, for example, you get COVID-19. The app will retrace your steps and see other people you have come in contact with in the past few days.

In an interview last week that lasted more than 30 minutes, the app’s developer Tim Brookins reassured us several times no one had access to the data.

“The thing is with our app, we're contractually bound that data sits in the server. I am literally the only person that has access to that data,” Brookins said back on May 15. “We share data with no one. It just sits in the cloud in this tiny little server in Iowa. And nobody ever sees it.”

Brookins also said the app wouldn’t identify users by name and they’d be assigned to a random number.

“We don't collect any personal information. So you don't put your name in. No phone number. You don't put your email address. Nothing like that. The app just actually gets assigned a random number when you install it. That's all we even know you by. A random number,” Brookins said.

A study by privacy app developer Jumbo Privacy blew a hole into that notion claiming that Google, Foursquare, and other companies have access to your location data.

Foursquare is a company that connects advertisers to people.

Jumbo Privacy recommended users do not download the CARE19 App, expressing concern your data may be shared with advertisers.

Brookins declined speaking on camera, yet in a statement to Valley News Live criticized Jumbo Privacy. He said Foursquare doesn’t store the data. CARE19 only sends data to Foursquare.

Yet, on Thursday in an interview with the tech publication Fast Company, Brookins credited the discovery of the issue as a “good catch.”

Brookins didn’t respond to our follow-up email.

More than 76,000 people have downloaded the app, Brookins said in that May 15th interview.

Jumbo Privacy declined commenting on its criticism of the CARE19 app, only saying “we care about facts.”

In a statement, Governor Burgum’s office said the CARE19 data is not shared for “commercial use.” They also said the app’s privacy policy was updated to explicitly identify the involvement of a third party.