Four months after Apple and Google announced an unusual collaboration to help public-health authorities track the novel coronavirus, apps built on their privacy-optimized Exposure Notification framework have begun arriving in the U.S.
The first, Virginia’s COVIDWISE, debuted Aug. 5. North Dakota and Wyoming shipped their Care19 Alert Aug. 13, Alabama launched its GuideSafe app Aug. 17, and Nevada introduced COVID Trace on Monday. The University of Arizona is testing Covid Watch Arizona, with a statewide release expected soon.
They work by sharing anonymous Bluetooth beacons with nearby devices running the same software, tagging those that suggest extended and close contact associated with coronavirus spread, and saving the last 14 days of these records.
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A positive test for COVID-19 in one of those states should include a code you enter into the app to upload its close-contact records to a health-authority server that then makes this anonymized data available to all these apps at their daily check-ins. If the app sees one of these reports match its saved list of close contacts, it warns of possible exposure and advises testing and quarantine.
These apps require iOS 13.5 or newer (usable on iPhones as old as 2015’s iPhone SE) or Android 6 or newer (which shipped in 2015), plus support for Bluetooth Low Energy wireless (usually a given).
Note that – contrary to widespread misinformation – Apple or Google don’t see these apps’ data. Their code framework also walls off these apps from information other programs collect.
“As we started actually building the app, we realized there were even more limits in place than we had initially known about,” emailed Taylor Smith, a developer with Birmingham, Ala.-based MotionMobs who worked on GuideSafe. “The biggest one, I think, is that there is no use of the GPS allowed in the app.”
(Android does require enabling location services for the Bluetooth component of these apps to work, but they still don’t get geographical data.)
As I saw after installing Virginia’s COVIDWISE, these apps require minimal effort. After a few taps of the screen to opt into this tracing, the app essentially vanished.
These apps do, however, need widespread adoption – at least 20% of a population, according to the explanation posted for the first app built on Apple and Google’s framework, Latvia’s Apturi Covid.
Virginia’s Department of Health reported that as of Aug. 19, 397,914 people had downloaded COVIDWISE, more than 10% of all state smartphone users between 18 and 65. As of Aug. 18, 19 people had anonymously reported positive test results, but the department did not have a number for the number of exposure warnings sent to app users.
Virginia, like many states, has seen delays in test results stretch past a week, a lag Gov. Ralph Northam recently called “unacceptable.”
Emily Gurley, an epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, noted that these apps’ automatic estimates of close contacts ignore such nuances as whether a person was indoors or outdoors.
She warned against thinking that installing them makes you safer, saying “you also have to be working to reduce contact.”
These apps also don’t necessarily work across state lines, but help is coming from a nationwide server initiative launched by the Association of Public Health Laboratories, a Silver Spring, Md., group. North Dakota and Wyoming’s Care19 app already uses it and Virginia’s COVIDWISE will soon, said Jeff Stover, Virginia’s Department of Health executive program advisor.
But even with these issues in mind, Gurley endorsed installing these apps.
“I feel very strongly about our responsibility towards each other,” she said. “So I’m all in on that.”
Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C. To submit a tech question, email Rob at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @robpegoraro.