Company Running Oregon Online Coronavirus Symptom Tracker Says It Can Sell Your Data To Advertisers

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While tech giants like Google and Apple have faced scrutiny from privacy and anti-surveillance activists for their software projects responding to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, smaller projects have flown under the radar. A COVID-19 symptom checker tool used by Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington Counties in Oregon, has a privacy policy claiming the company can sell people’s personal data to advertisers.

Emergency room software company Vital, which makes the tool, said it’s a way of telling people whether they should go to the emergency room or self-quarantine. But the company also said it could sell location and other identifying data to advertisers gathered with the tool, according to its privacy policy, which stated that “we may use a type of advertising commonly known as interest-based or online behavioral advertising.”

The checker asks people to input their age, gender, ZIP code, symptoms, as well as any underlying health conditions. It also collects information about location and web browsing history, all of which according to the privacy policy, may be sold to “interest-based or online behavioral” advertisers so that they can serve personalized ads.

Vital spokesperson Martha Shaughnessy told BuzzFeed News that the company has not and would never sell personal data gathered using the COVID-19 tracker, and that the COVID-19 symptom tracker’s privacy policy did not reflect the company’s advertising policies.

In response to BuzzFeed News, Vital co-founder Aaron Patzer said that the company would be updating its terms of service to reflect its actual practices. “We probably moved too fast on our privacy policy, our terms of service, and we made them broad because that’s the easiest thing to do,” he said.

Patzer said that the COVID-19 symptom checker privacy policy was customized for the tool, and adapted from Vital’s general privacy policy. The symptom checker privacy policy explicitly mentioned COVID-19 and the specific functions of the symptom checker, like checking for “fever, dry cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, headache, and nausea,” the symptoms of COVID-19.

Based in Atlanta, Vital was founded by Patzer, who also founded personal finance website Mint, and his brother-in-law Juston Schrager. Its symptom checker was designed to control the amount of people seeking treatment at the emergency room so that local hospital systems don’t become overwhelmed, according to Shaughnessy.

“[It’s] an enterprise product designed for [the] emergency room surge in general,” Shaughnessy said. “They shifted their whole team to do COVID checking because they’re founded by an emergency room doctor, an epidemiologist, and then a technologist, and when they wanted to add a diagnostic portion for COVID, they didn’t find anything in the market to do that.”

The Center for Disease Prevention and Control has a COVID-19 symptom checker on its website.

Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington Counties are each paying $3,300 a month for Vital’s symptom checker, according to news outlet Oregon Live. Shaughnessy told BuzzFeed News that previous to these contracts, Vital has only worked with the Emory University Hospital system in Atlanta, which employs Schrager as an emergency room doctor.

Benjamin Diggles, a former Portland resident and co-founder of blockchain company Constellation Network, told BuzzFeed News he recommended Vital to Oregon public safety authorities after his friend, Portland Fire public information officer Rich Chatman, asked for advice on how to prevent 911 lines from becoming overburdened.

Diggles heard about Vital through a friend who was familiar with its role in Emory University’s hospital system, and purchased the domain name, which hosts the symptom checker tool, and corresponding domain names for the remaining 49 states for a total of $547. He said that he would be willing to give them to Vital or state health authorities for free and that he had recommended Vital to public health and public safety officials in Colorado, Missouri, and California.

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