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.

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.

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.”