It’s a race against time.
As communities start to open, governments are rushing to put together smartphone apps that can be part of their arsenal to curtail the spread of COVID-19.
But the apps -- and the technologies they rely on -- vary, and for many that has led to confusion about what to expect.
“It's overwhelming how many proposals are coming out,” Gennie Gebhart, associate director of research at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said. “There's total alphabet soup of different acronyms, of different technologies. And it's hard to understand exactly what is what. And I think that's because it's still early days.”
Tracking your proximity to an exposure
At the moment, there’s not yet an app available in the United States that lets someone know if they’ve been exposed to someone testing positive for COVID-19. Around the world, Singapore, Australia and other nations have released apps that do this but with varying success.
The main proposal for a consumer app comes from Apple and Google, which together create the operating systems for most smartphones in the world. They have joined forces to release software tools so that governments can make an app that will help with letting people know if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19.
Their approach relies on Bluetooth, a short-range radio frequency inside a smartphone. Phones with the app will store the Bluetooth beams they receive from other phones and check daily a database of those who have reported testing positive. If there is a match – that someone has been too close for too long to a person with a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 – the person learns about it and can contact a health professional to find out the next steps to take.
Privacy advocates such as the ACLU and EFF support this approach, which keeps data decentralized and anonymized. Bluetooth doesn’t provide information to public health departments.
GPS location data approach
But some states, such as North and South Dakota, as well as Utah, are looking to apps for a different purpose -- to help with their contact tracing efforts. That’s when public health workers contact people who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. These apps rely on GPS location data, which can reveal information about a person’s movements, as well as the Bluetooth proximity information.
With the Dakotas app, Care 19, if a person consents, their location data is shared with local public health officials. More than 45,000 residents of Utah – about 2 percent of the state’s population – have signed up for its state app, Healthy Together, according to CNBC.
To download or not?
Gebhart, of EFF, said there are an array of questions people might want to consider before they download a COVID-19 app. How much data is collected? Are users allowed to turn it on and off, or uninstall it at will?
“There needs to be trust for the system to work for people to want to adopt it and want to interact with it,” she said.
In many ways, the apps proposed have been unproven and untested, Gebhart said. But as governments open society again, this public health technology experiment may play a role in whether residents can begin to safely venture out.