DHS Taps California-Based Startup to Test Privacy in Contact Tracing Apps

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It marks the first of multiple forthcoming awards through the department’s Silicon Valley Innovation Program.

The Homeland Security Department selected a California-based startup to create and refine a means for gauging the security and privacy risks posed by digital COVID-19 contact tracing apps. 

As the first of six startups selected to receive an initial award for a pandemic-specific solicitation launched last year through DHS’ Silicon Valley Innovation Program, AppCensus was granted $198,600 to steer the solution’s development. 

While smartphone-based contact tracing tools can help track the interactions of people who were exposed to the novel coronavirus, if they aren’t secure, their usage could result in the exposure of individuals’ sensitive, personal health information.

The selected startup already runs a platform for testing of mobile applications’ security and privacy at-scale. Through this work, that tool will be adapted to “develop an on-demand, automated mobile-app testing system” to enable such assessments of “publicly available android and iOS digital contract tracing apps,” agency officials noted in a press release Monday. 

AppCensus is set to share a public microsite detailing the results of app analyses it conducts. Those will include sensitivity categorizations for data captured by the services, disclosures from the developers about how the information is used—and more.

“It is important to safeguard privacy, security, equity and liberty with digital contact tracing and exposure notification applications,” Anil John, DHS’ SVIP technical director said in a statement. “Once adapted and enhanced, the AppCensus platform will provide reports based on consistent tests using openly developed criteria of publicly available digital contract tracing applications to make it easy for people to understand potential privacy and security risks.”

Companies can gain up to $800,000 in funding across all four phases of the agency’s SVIP program.

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