July 16, 2024
Calmara suggests it can detect STIs with photos of genitals -- a dangerous idea

You’ve gone home with a Tinder date, and things are escalating. You don’t really know or trust this guy, and you don’t want to contract an STI, so… what now?

A company called Calmara wants you to snap a photo of the guy’s penis, then use its AI to tell you if your partner is “clear” or not.

Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat: You should not take a picture of anyone’s genitals and scan it with an AI tool to decide whether or not you should have sex.

The premise of Calmara has more red flags than a bad first date, but it gets even worse from there when you consider that the majority of STIs are asymptomatic. So, your partner could very well have an STI, but Calmara would tell you he’s in the clear. That’s why actual STI tests use blood and urine samples to detect infection, as opposed to a visual exam.

Other startups are addressing the need for accessible STI testing in a more responsible way.

“With lab diagnosis, sensitivity and specificity are two key measures that help us understand the test’s propensity for missing infections and for false positives,” Daphne Chen, founder of TBD Health, told TechCrunch. “There’s always some level of fallibility, even with highly rigorous tests, but test manufacturers like Roche are upfront with their validation rates for a reason — so clinicians can contextualize the results.”

In the fine print, Calmara warns that its findings should not be substituted for medical advice. But its marketing suggests otherwise. Before TechCrunch reached out to Calmara, the title of its website read: “Calmara: Your Intimate Bestie for Unprotected Sex” (it’s since been updated to say “Safer Sex” instead.) And in a promo video, it describes itself as “The PERFECT WEBSITE for HOOKING UP!”

Co-founder and CEO Mei-Ling Lu told TechCrunch that Calmara was not meant as a serious medical tool. “Calmara is a lifestyle product, not a medical app. It does not involve any medical conditions or discussions within its framework, and no medical doctors are involved with the current Calmara experience. It is a free information service.”

“We are updating the communications to better reflect our intentions right now,” Lu added. “The clear idea is to initiate a conversation regarding STI status and testing.”

Calmara is part of HeHealth, which was founded in 2019. Calmara and HeHealth use the same AI, which it says is 65-90% accurate. HeHealth is framed as a first step for assessing sexual health; then, the platform helps users connect with partner clinics in their area to schedule an appointment for an actual, comprehensive screening.

HeHealth’s approach is more reassuring than Calmara’s, but that’s a low bar — and even then, there’s a giant red flag waving: data privacy.

“It’s good to see that they offer an anonymous mode, where you don’t have to link your photos to personally identifiable information,” Valentina Milanova, founder of tampon-based STI screening startup Daye, told TechCrunch. “This, however, doesn’t mean that their service is de-identified or anonymized, as your photos might still be traced back to your email or IP address.”

HeHealth and Calmara also claim that they’re compliant with HIPAA, a regulation that protects patient confidentiality, because they use Amazon Web Services. This sounds reassuring, but in its privacy policy, Calmara writes that it shares user information with “service providers and partners who assist in service operation, including data hosting, analytics, marketing, payment processing, and security.” They also don’t specify whether these AI scans are taking place on your device or in the cloud, and if so, how long that data remains in the cloud, and what it’s used for. That’s a bit too vague to reassure users that their intimate photos are safe.

These security questions aren’t just concerning for the users — they’re dangerous for the company itself. What happens if a minor uses the website to check for STIs? Then, Calmara ends up in possession of child sexual abuse material. Calmara’s response to this ethical and legal liability is to write in its terms of service that it prohibits minors’ usage, but that defense would hold no legal weight.

Calmara represents the danger of over-hyped technology: It seems like a publicity stunt for HeHealth to capitalize on excitement around AI, but in its actual implementation, it just gives users a false sense of security about their sexual health. Those consequences are serious.

“Sexual health is a tricky space to innovate within, and I can see where their intentions are noble,” Chen said. “I just think they might be too quick to market with a solution that’s underbaked.”

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