Contact tracking apps are finally being rolled out in the US to help fight the spread of COVID-19. These powerful tools, already used in other countries, create widespread privacy concerns. We’re going to explore the details of what the apps do, how they affect your phone, and how privacy is built into the most popular apps so you can make an informed decision about whether to download one.
Are the apps working?
Although not all people have smartphones, and not all smartphone users download the apps, experts believe that they are still important. Professor Cristophe Fraser, PhD, at Oxford University, made a strong case that even partial adoption should have a significant impact on infection rates.
“We see that all levels of exposure notification intake in the UK and US have the potential to significantly reduce the number of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the population,” he wrote. “We estimate this in Washington State, for example. A well-staffed manual contact tracing workforce, coupled with a 15% implementation of an exposure reporting system, could reduce infections by 15% and deaths by 11%.”
The technological safety net these apps provide can also help with anxiety and other psychological effects of the pandemic. Announcing the launch of COVID Alert NY, Governor Andrew Cuomo shared his feelings:
“Everyone is wondering, ‘I was next to this person, I was next to this person,’ but that can actually give you some data. I think it will not only take contact tracing to a new level, but it will also bring comfort to people. “
There have already been examples of COVID reports aimed at containing the tide of the pandemic. In a recent case, a notification triggered the immediate closure of an Ontario curling tournament, protecting athletes from possible infections.
What are you doing?
Apple and Google jointly developed the Exposure Notification System, a unified framework for contact tracking that works on different platforms and apps. Contact tracers usually rely on voluntary information, incomplete reminders, and manual phone calls to determine who came into contact with an infected person. The new system uses technology to make contact tracing easier, faster, more private, and potentially more reliable than traditional methods.
Via the Bluetooth connection on your phone, the app searches for other users in your area and records which users you are in close proximity to and for how long. As soon as someone reports in the app that he or she has tested positive, anyone who has met a number of risk factors in the recent past (usually distance from positive user and duration of exposure) will receive a notification and receive recommendations on what to do next to take.
Since the Exposure Notification System is more of a framework than a specific app, you will need to check your app store to download your local government’s app. You can click here for Android apps and here for iOS apps or search directly on your device. Apps are developed and published state-to-state in the United States. However, thanks to the common framework for Exposure Notification, they can work well together and continue contract tracking even when users travel outside their region.
How will this affect my phone?
To see firsthand how these apps work, I downloaded COVID Alert PA to my phone. It only weighs a little more than 69MB and is installed on my Samsung Galaxy A50. It’s way below many popular apps like Facebook, Walmart, or McDonald’s, and it’s about the size of a dozen high-quality photos.
Bluetooth consumes power and can affect battery life, but the amount is minimal and for many users the connection is already active. If you’re using wireless headphones, in-vehicle infotainment systems, speakers, or wearables, your bluetooth is already on and looking for devices to connect to. After a full day, my phone reported that COVID Alert PA hadn’t even depleted 1% of my battery.
What about data protection?
It might seem counterintuitive for a contact tracking app to offer robust data protection as well, but that is exactly what the Exposure Notification system was designed for. Your personal information will never be shared with Google, Apple or local authorities. Your phone generates a random number that changes every 10 to 20 minutes to represent you, but not personal information.
You have the option to provide contact information to help your local health authority determine next steps if you test positive. However, this is not required. Users of older versions of Android need to enable location settings for the apps to work. However, this is a special feature of the operating system. Your location data is not tracked or sent anywhere.
The take away
Exposure notification apps could play a key role in the fight against COVID-19. Given the strong privacy protection built into the app architecture and the low impact on memory and battery life, official COVID alert apps offer great public health benefits at a low cost to privacy or user experience. Search your device’s app store or click the links under “What are you doing?”. above to see if an app is available for your region.
Sean Marsala is a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based health journalist. He loves technology, usually reads, surfs the internet, and explores virtual worlds.