- IBM is testing an opt-in mobile app in India that will track employees’ locations to help monitor the spread of the coronavirus, Protocol reported Thursday.
- The app will identify and notify employees who might have “come in close contact with a person affected in the last 14 days,” a spokesperson told Business Insider in a statement.
- IBM joins major tech companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft that are leveraging location data to track COVID-19, raising concerns about how users’ privacy will be protected.
- IBM’s app is voluntary, will delete data after 16 days, and won’t disclose individual employees’ identities, executive vice president John Kelly III told Protocol.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
IBM is testing an opt-in mobile app that will track the locations of its employees in India in an effort to help monitor and slow the spread of COVID-19, Protocol reported on Thursday.
“The mobile app, designed and developed in India is available to IBMers to help curb the spread of the virus by identification of employees who may have come in close contact with a person affected in the last 14 days,” an IBM spokesperson confirmed to Business Insider in a statement.
Employees who opt in will be notified if they were in the same location as co-workers who report experiencing symptoms commonly associated with the virus, the spokesperson said.
Similar contact tracing technologies are being developed by other major technology companies — most notably Apple and Google, who are jointly working on a Bluetooth-based tool to be offered to the general public. Microsoft is working with the University of Washington to build a contact tracing app, GeekWire reported Wednesday, while New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the same day that former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg would spend $10 million of his own money to help build a regional network in partnership with Johns Hopkins University.
The reliance on location-based data for contact tracing has raised concerns about the trade-offs between public health and privacy. Apple and Google’s project could have potentially “alarming” implications for consumer privacy, US Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, wrote in a letter sent to both CEOs on Tuesday.
IBM has faced criticism for its behaviors around user privacy in the past. In 2019, the city of Los Angeles sued The Weather Channel mobile app, which is owned by IBM, for “unfair and fraudulent” data collection practices, alleging that users were deceived because the app wasn’t transparent about how it collected and sold their data.
A spokesman told the Associated Press at the time that IBM has always been clear about the use of location data collected from users and would vigorously defend its “fully appropriate” disclosures.
Regarding its contact tracing app, IBM executive vice president and director of Watson Health, John Kelly III, told Protocol that the app would only collect data for 16 days and that employees wouldn’t be told the identity of the individual who reported feeling sick.
“We use it only for the stated purpose of reminding you where you were, or reminding you to socially distance, that meets our value system. We don’t think it’s ethical to truly electronically trace and track,” Kelly told Protocol.
An IBM spokesperson stressed to Business Insider that the app is voluntary, saying: “the health and safety of IBM employees, clients, and partners remains our top priority.” The company did not specify what its plans were for the app once the coronavirus pandemic subsides other than that it would depend on what local governments express interest in.
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