Contact tracing app near launch in Virginia as Congress calls for privacy protections


RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – A new app, expected to launch in the first week of August, will alert Virginians of possible exposure to COVID-19 but some lawmakers say privacy protections are needed to boost public confidence in the technology.

The Virginia Department of Health is no stranger to ‘contact tracing’ but this app will aid in the state’s largest, most modern effort yet. Normally, contact tracers conduct extensive interviews with new positive coronavirus cases to identify everyone that person may have exposed. VDH then reaches out to those contacts with the goal of testing and isolating them before the virus spreads further.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said, when ‘COVIDWISE’ launches, those who test positive will be asked by contact tracers to download the app. If they agree, they will be given a six-digit pin that they are in charge of entering.

“It’s completely opt-in. You can quit at anytime and turn off the app,” Oliver said.

Oliver said it uses Bluetooth technology–not location data or personal information–to notify other devices that have also downloaded the app of potential exposure.

“It will ping those phones and all it will tell them is that sometime in the last 14 days you may have been exposed to COVID-19,” Oliver said.

Oliver said VDH rejected multiple vendors that would’ve used GPS data to track contacts instead.

Jeff Stover, who’s been spearheading the app launch for VDH, said department employees and their families have been involved in beta-testing for weeks. He explained that this technology–created by Apple and Google–operates through anonymous Bluetooth keys that are generated periodically by devices that have activated the app.

“The closer we are, the stronger the signal. That’s how we can estimate exposure,” Stover said.

“So it doesn’t say you were at this bar, on this date, near this phone number. It doesn’t know any of that,” Oliver said.

Currently, Stover said the server that enables this connectivity is Virginia-specific but other states are developing similar apps. He said Apple and Google are in the process of creating a national server so that this method of contact tracing can work across state borders. He expects that to lag behind the launch in Virginia by several weeks.

Though not everyone is required to participate, Oliver said this method requires widespread buy-in to be truly effective. He said VDH will be marketing extensively with the goal of persuading at least half of adults in the state to download the app.

Some lawmakers have warned public skepticism towards big tech and the industry’s past misuse of personal data could undermine the effort. A recent survey, cited by thirteen Senate Democrats in a letter to Congressional leadership, showed 84 percent of Americans “feel uneasy about sharing their personal health information for COVID-19-related mitigation efforts.”

“Yes we ought to use technology in terms of contact tracing but we have to make sure that information is carefully guarded,” U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said in an interview.

Warner is among those pushing for the ‘Public Health Emergency Privacy Act’ to be included in the next coronavirus relief package. He said the bill explicitly outlines rules to ensure the collection, retention and use of data from these screening tools is limited to combatting COVID-19. He said the legislation would prevent information from being abused for invasive or discriminatory purposes.

“I do think Apple and Google have done some of the most advanced work. By encrypting this data, they can make it safe that others can’t break in,” Warner said. “But it’s not only that idea of being hacked into. It’s also about the basic trust you have to have with these companies who’re getting the information.”

Oliver said he doesn’t think it’s necessary to delay the implementation of Virginia’s app until after federal privacy protections are passed.

Stover said Google and Apple have been adamant from the beginning about not collecting patient-specific information. He said he’s confident in that commitment but added that this bill could go a long way in bolstering public trust.

“If there were laws on the books that helped to assure people then that would be a good thing because I think, regardless of what these tech companies say they are going to do, there are some who think they’re saying one thing and doing another,” Stover said.

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