Virginia Launches US’ First Contact Tracing App with Apple-Google tech
On Wednesday, Virginia launched the first contact tracing app for the novel coronavirus in the United States. The app, COVIDWISE, is the first fully deployed implementation of Apple and Google’s system in the US and was beta tested by the state department of health. The state is saying that the app can help the state catch new cases faster, however, long delays in getting test results must be overcome for it to be effective.
Phones with the app will exchange Bluetooth signals to keep an anonymous list of close encounters. The app then allows people who catch the virus to notify those contacts without anyone revealing their identity. The app is designed to preserve patient privacy, particularly around their location and whether they have tested positive for COVID-19.
If someone tests positive for the coronavirus, the VDH will give them a PIN number that they can choose to use to report that result within the app. Then, other users of the app should get a notification if their phones were near the sick person at some point in the past 14 days. However, those notifications will only go out to phones when the exposure met a threshold for strength and duration of the Bluetooth signal that can be estimated as a user being within six feet of the other user for 15 minutes.
Governor Ralph Northam said in a televised briefing, “This is a way we can all work together to contain this virus. No one is tracking you. None of your personal information is saved.” At least three more states are nearing the launch of similar apps, aiming to ease the burden on manual contact tracing teams.
However, the United States remains far behind Europe, where millions of people across 11 territories over the last two months have downloaded smartphone tracker apps using the specialized Apple-Google Bluetooth technology.
A couple of U.S. states previously released contact tracing apps that experts have described as more privacy-invasive because they rely on tracking users’ locations, as opposed to Bluetooth transmissions. a health department official told Virginia Public Media, “No location data or personal information is ever collected, stored or transmitted to VDH as part of the app. You can delete the app or turn off exposure notifications at any time.”