NM Tech boosts contact tracing with novel app

Mar. 12—ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico Tech in Socorro is arming its students, staff and faculty with an ubiquitous contact-tracing app to rapidly prevent coronavirus outbreaks if anyone on campus tests positive.

Once downloaded and turned on, the app traces every step taken by the user while on campus, allowing system managers to immediately determine each individual's proximity and duration of time near an infected person so that those exposed can rapidly get tested and isolate themselves.

Such apps aren't new. In fact, NM Tech built its app on top of software already developed by New Mexico State University.

But NM Tech says its "MinerSafe" app offers the highest level of data privacy and security available on the market. It's been extensively vetted by the university's Cybersecurity Center of Excellence.

"There are lots of apps out there, but our cybersecurity folks said the data collected by most apps is not truly secure, so we spent a lot of time on that," said Vice President of Research Van Romero.

The university's Institute for Complex Additive Analysis worked to ensure user privacy, engineering the app to not just protect all data collected, but also to limit all GPS-based tracking only to campus.

An individual's movements outside university property is never recorded.

"We set up accurate 'geo-fencing' features so that, when someone is not on campus, it's not tracking them," Romero said.

That's critical for students, faculty and staff, most of whom told campus pollsters they would only use the app if they knew it was secure and not exploited by anyone.

Normally, up to 2,000 people populate the campus daily. As COVID-19 winds down and many return full-time, university officials want as much contact tracing as possible.

"We've learned this past year that the better job we do in contact tracing, the sooner we'll stop the spread of virus," Romero said. "If someone tests positive, we want to know immediately who was in contact with that person to get them tested and isolated fast."

Faculty and students began beta testing the app in February.

"If someone tests positive on campus, many people won't remember what contact they had with that person," said Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources Director Nelia Dunbar, a beta tester. "This app offers an extra safety net. It just runs on your phone and does all the contact-tracing work for you."

Computer science student Celia Pacheco said she appreciates the app's extra security.

"That will get more students to use it, because many take their privacy very seriously," Pacheco said.

App use is completely voluntary. It's free for download on the Apple App Store and will soon be available for Android phones.

NM Tech intends to make it available to all other universities as well, Romero said.