[Ip-health] Salt Lake City Tribune: Utah company claims exclusive rights to using smartphones to trace COVID-19 contacts

James Love james.love at keionline.org
Tue May 5 11:09:45 PDT 2020


(Read on the Salt Lake City Tribun site if possible. )

* A small Utah technology company is claiming exclusive business rights to
using smartphones and other electronic devices in tracing people who may be
infected with COVID-19.

* In a move that could complicate Utah’s latest strategies to battle the
coronavirus, Salt Lake City-based startup Blyncsy said it has launched a
website “as a simple way” for other companies to request licensing of its
patented technologies and methods for contact tracing.

* “The story here is we’re trying to make the technology available to fight
COVID-19," he said, "not going after people for patent infringement.”

https://www.sltrib.com/news/2020/05/04/utah-company-claims/

TUESDAY, MAY 5, 2020

Utah company claims exclusive rights to using smartphones to trace COVID-19
contacts

(Kristin Murphy, Deseret News/pool) Gov. Gary Herbert speaks April 22,
2020, during the daily COVID-19 media briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake
City that dealt with contact tracing. A small Utah firm is claiming
exclusive business rights to contact tracing using electronic devices.)

By Tony Semerad
 ·
A small Utah technology company is claiming exclusive business rights to
using smartphones and other electronic devices in tracing people who may be
infected with COVID-19.

In a move that could complicate Utah’s latest strategies to battle the
coronavirus, Salt Lake City-based startup Blyncsy said it has launched a
website “as a simple way” for other companies to request licensing of its
patented technologies and methods for contact tracing.

Blyncsy, pronounced “Blink-SEE,” whose self-described specialty is
“movement data intelligence,” says it “would like to get its technology
into the hands of other companies and government agencies, so that we can
fight this virus together.”

But if claims by Blyncsy CEO Mark Pittman are correct, other companies may
already be using its patented techniques without legal authority —
including a firm now working with state and health officials in Utah on an
application that launched in April for tracking people potentially exposed
to the coronavirus.

State officials said last week that at least 36,000 residents have already
downloaded the Healthy Together contact tracing app, created under a state
contract with mobile developer Twenty, which has offices in Utah, San
Francisco and New York.

The app, which is free to download, can be found in the Google and Apple
app stores, at coronavirus.utah.gov or at healthytogetherutah.com.

While Pittman said its outreach to other companies is “friendly,” the
firm’s seemingly gentle invitation to license its technologies could
foreshadow a legal clash over who controls tools now deemed vital in
fighting the virus’ spread.

“So everyone is talking about doing contact tracing, right? Blyncsy holds
the patent on contact tracing,” Pittman said in an interview.

“It’s a very clear and clean patent specifically around how to use
electronic devices to understand if people have been exposed to contagion,”
he said, referring to exclusive rights Blyncsy believes were granted to it
by the U.S. Patent Office in 2019 on certain contact and contagion tracking
methods.

“We would encourage anyone who’s doing contact tracing to license our
technology as we believe we have a patent on the technology that covers the
entire U.S.,” he said.

As Utah reopens its economy, some say the COVID-19 unemployment benefits
could be a barrier to working

As Utah reopens its economy, some say the COVID-19 unemployment benefits
could be a barrier to working

A spokesperson for Twenty, Zea Moscone, said last week that Healthy
Together is based on technology it developed starting in 2014.

“We are not aware of any technology that Blyncsy has developed nor have
they ever contacted us,” said Moscone said.

And in the state of Utah’s contract with Twenty for Healthy Together,
reviewed Monday by The Salt Lake Tribune, the company guarantees that what
it plans to deliver “will not infringe any copyrights, patents, trade
secrets, or other proprietary rights.”

Pittman said the firm seeks the licensing not so much for financial reasons
— it is offering to waive royalty fees in some circumstances — but more out
of concern that contact tracing in other companies’ hands might lead to
widespread surveillance and violate individual privacy.

“The biggest issue we have here is, if people roll out contact tracing,
some people are bad actors, and if they use it for the wrong reasons, we
can never use contact tracing again,” the Blyncsy CEO said.

Tech giants Google and Apple announced April 10 they were partnering in a
joint effort to create a Bluetooth-based platform for contact tracing “to
help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus, with
user privacy and security central to the design.”

The state of Utah is already well into a $1.75 million contract with Twenty
for the launch of Healthy Together, intended to track residents’ movements
and, if they become infected, to help public health workers trace where
they crossed paths with other users.

When it launched, Jared Allgood, Twenty’s chief strategy officer and one of
four co-founders of the company, said information collected by the Healthy
Together app will be used solely for public health. He noted the app allows
residents to choose whether to opt in.

Allgood has described the company’s privacy guarantees as “clear.” He and
state officials have also noted that data collected through the app would
be shared with public health workers, but not with other app users. Users
can delete their own data at any time, they said, and data on their
location or symptoms is to be automatically deleted in 30 days.

Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, told Utahns that “the success of
this app is tied directly to your trust in us and our ability to safeguard
your information.”

According to explanations at healthytogetherutah.com, the application uses
Bluetooth and location-tracing services to record when its users come into
close proximity. Utah officials have said they will spend another $1
million to further develop the app, which Twenty launched on a trial basis
on April 22.

The state contract with Twenty also calls for Utah to pay $300,000 in
monthly maintenance and support fees beginning May 1 and while the app has
up to 1 million users, then adds 30 cents per month for each additional
user.

In an interview with The Tribune, Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Midvale,
complained that Twenty’s charge for developing the app “was extremely high”
— based, he said, on discussions with other software application developers.

Stoddard said Utah’s technology companies “maybe had the good intentions to
help out initially” when the state was ramping up its fight against
COVID-19. But, he said, “there’s so much lack of transparency that we
haven’t had any idea of what they’re doing, how they’re doing it or how
much they’re being paid until just recently.”

“I feel like perhaps the state is getting taken advantage of,” Stoddard
said Monday.

Twenty launched its social location-sharing app, also called Twenty, in
March 2019 and the company says it has more than 2 million users. Besides
linking friends who sign on to the platform, Twenty also helps its users
discover nearby events.

Pittman said Blyncsy was “not going to target anyone” with its request for
others to license its technology and he declined to address Twenty
specifically, although a company official earlier said via email its move
“stands to impact the state’s app for contact tracing.”

“I won’t speak to any of that at this point,” the Blyncsy CEO said.
Instead, he said the company’s motive “is almost purely privacy related.”

“The story here is we’re trying to make the technology available to fight
COVID-19," he said, "not going after people for patent infringement.”

While not commenting on Blyncsy’s patent specifically, a Utah attorney
specializing in patent law said licensing arrangements commonly include
limits on how technologies can be used, including by industry and
geography, in addition to financial arrangements.

“Typically a license is geared more towards, ‘What are you going to pay me
in return for my authorization and my promise not to see you in the
District Court?' ” said Eric Maschoff, patent attorney and shareholder at
the law firm Maschoff Brennan in Salt Lake City.

“But it’s not unusual for a license to dictate any one of a number of terms
other than just what royalty needs to be paid,” Maschoff said.

In addition to licensing Blyncsy’s technology and methods, Pittman asserts
that potential users will have to submit their privacy policies for “review
on a case-by-case basis.” The company is now convening a panel of outside
experts for those privacy reviews, he said.

“You’re going to see some big names" on that committee, Pittman said,
adding that Sunny Washington, CEO of Utah-based Because Learning, would be
its chairwoman.

Any data collected by licensed users of Blyncsy’s technology, the CEO said,
will have to be made anonymous and aggregated in a way that individual
details cannot be released, even in case of a database hack. Licensed
companies also cannot use the data for any purpose outside of COVID-19, he
said.

“Whether it’s for the second wave of COVID-19 or for the next disease that
comes at us,” Pittman said, “we’re trying to use this as a mechanism to
ensure there’s no public backlash against the technology to help us fight
both this pandemic and future pandemics.”

tsemerad at sltrib.com

Follow @tonysemerad

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