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Calmara suggests it can detect STIs with photos of genitals — a dangerous idea
March 26, 2024

Calmara suggests it can detect STIs with photos of genitals — a dangerous idea

Reading Time: 2 minutes

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.

‘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.

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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