Covid-19 tracing app developed by Amrit Baveja and Beck Lorsch for their school raises flak

Amrit Baveja. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Ronnie Cohen

They felt anxious, depressed, lonely and lost in their devices. Amrit Baveja, 17, listened as other high school students talked last spring in a Zoom room about fallout from the pandemic and remote learning.

The students seemed so desperate to return to school IRL (in real life) that Amrit trusted they would resist their teenage tendencies and follow social-distancing rules and restrictions if they could just attend in-person classes.

Based on that faith, Amrit, a big data and machine learning enthusiast, teamed up with a programming partner, Beck Lorsch, 17, who has released six iOS apps. They spent the summer building an app intended to help their private high schools in Marin County, Calif., contain the spread of covid-19.

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“They’re sick of online learning,” Amrit said. An app, the young men thought, could help overcome the obstacles to returning to the classroom for high-schoolers, who are considered more at-risk for serious illness from the virus and more likely to behave in ways that could transmit it than younger children.

Development turned out to be the relatively easy part for the two, who taught themselves to program using online platforms when they were in elementary school. In November, they won the 2020 Congressional App Challenge for California’s 2nd District. Navigating the fault lines of the teenage pull to party with friends was more treacherous.

Beck Lorsch. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Ronnie Cohen

Every morning before school, Amrit and Beck’s app, called MarinTrace, asks students and teachers about their health, travel and if anyone in their life has tested positive for the novel coronavirus, which causes the covid-19 disease. If they answer yes to any question, the program instructs them to stay home, emails school administrators, and contact tracing and testing is supposed to begin.

Administrators at Branson, Amrit’s school, began piloting the app in October, soon after the campus, nestled in wooded hills north of the Golden Gate Bridge, opened for the first time since the coronavirus closed it in March.

About 50 of the high school’s 320 students and 15 faculty members volunteered for the test study. Participants’ class schedules were downloaded into the app, and they agreed to self-report all their contacts – from between-class conversations to shared meals, parties and sleepovers.

Amrit and Beck worked on the assumptions that students would honestly disclose their interactions because they want their school to remain open and that they wouldn’t want to sacrifice the battery life of their phone or their privacy to an app that would track their every move.

Like Google maps, surveillance apps that use GPS can drain cellphone batteries. Moreover, the prospect of corporations or government agencies monitoring a student’s every step raises privacy concerns.

In New Albany, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, parents fired off angry emails after the schools superintendent was quoted in a Wired story expressing interest in a Volan Technology student surveillance app. The software would have monitored students to see if they were adhering to social-distancing guidelines and would have allowed administrators to quickly identify those exposed to covid-19.

Patrick Gallaway, the school district’s communications director, was reluctant to speak about the app proposal, except to say: “Our community was not thrilled about the concept. We’re not doing it.”

Volan Technology recently installed sensors in every classroom and hallway at Wickliffe High School, a suburb of Cleveland. In January, when the public school is scheduled to resume in-person instruction, some of the staff and 500 students will be asked to volunteer in a pilot project. Those who enlist will wear badges, which will wirelessly communicate with the sensors to track their movement.

If a student or teacher tests positive for covid-19, the badge will provide “a digital footprint” of where they’ve been and who they might have infected, said Joseph Spiccia, superintendent of Wickliffe City School District. He prefers electronic badges to phone tracking apps because students can remove badges when they leave school.

“That option kind of mitigates the argument that Big Brother is watching you,” he said.

But the badges remain Orwellian in the eyes of privacy expert Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP).

“We don’t think any of these systems has been shown to be effective, actually reducing transmission of covid-19,” he said. “And they all create a risk of bias that this technology will be used to target students of color and further expand tracking and criminalization of students.”

The danger, he said, comes “in the form of data that can be harvested by law enforcement, data that can be stolen by hackers.”

Amrit and Beck, a senior at Marin Academy, believed their classmates would have little appetite for tracking so they relied on self-reporting interactions that would lead to future contact tracing. And the student body had signed a code of conduct to steer clear of large gatherings or parties.

But just a couple of weeks into the app’s pilot, some Branson students breached the faith. They threw caution and their masks to the wind at Halloween parties. The school closed down again. The app played no role in detecting any outbreaks because the partygoers were not participating in the pilot.

“We cannot with confidence tell our employees, students or families that our campus provides an environment that is safe,” Chris Mazzola, head of the school, wrote in a letter to students and families.

Mary Jane Burke is considering using the app in Marin County’s schools where she is superintendent. With 80 percent of the county’s schools back to some in-person class time, between Sept. 8 and Dec. 3, public health officials had traced only a single case of covid-19 to in-school transmission, and it involved two staff members working in an office, she said.

“Anything we can do to streamline the collection of data and the health status of individuals is going to make it easier to have all students return to school,” she said.

Pierce Freeman, a 2014 Branson graduate and Silicon Valley computer scientist, applauded Amrit and Beck’s effort to help their own community.

“The more approaches that engineers come up with to try to solve this problem the better,” he said.

“Having people who are closer to the heartbeat of the community working on the problem is critical,” he said. “At the end of the day, the tension is between privacy and the need for contact tracing, and each community has to make the decision about the trade-offs for themselves.”

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