(TNS) — Massachusetts is considering using Bluetooth signals on mobile devices to track and warn people who are exposed to someone infected with the coronavirus.
The state Department of Public Health is seeking bidders to help pilot digital contact tracing efforts to see how effective it is and whether the pilot shows any privacy or security flaws, according to a Request for Response published Friday. The state is seeking bidders for three programs under the “Exposure Notification Application Project.”
The state expects to select two to three bidders over the next month.
At least part of the project involves piloting digital contact tracing technology developed by Google and Apple, which formed a partnership earlier this year to find ways to track and reduce the spread of COVID-19. Gov. Charlie Baker spoke with representatives of Google and Apple in April to discuss their development of contact tracing technology. He had reportedly reviewed a paper by a coalition of scientists and tech executives about how to recover from COVID-19. One of the recommendations was to create a widespread, voluntary app in which people would self-report symptoms before going to work or school.
At the time, he said Massachusetts could pursue digital contact tracing if it doesn’t compromise the privacy of residents across the state.
“I think it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t subtract from the importance of sort of the credibility of our tracing program,” Baker told reporters in April. “I think it’s certainly something we should try to figure out how use it but to make it better.”
The state did not reopen businesses with any digital contact tracing. In fact, it laid off hundreds of employees from the Contact Tracing Collaborative in July. The state rehired 150 people and hired 150 more to beef up the staff as the state’s COVID-19 case numbers started to rise again.
The state is looking for ways to bolster the manual contact tracing program, which is done with help from Partners in Health.
It’s unclear how much the state is looking to pay for it and whether the state expects digital contact tracing to supplement or eventually replace the current contact tracing initiative in place. The state Department of Public Health did not immediately respond to questions about the project.
Proponents of the brand of digital contract tracing developed by Google and Apple, specifically the use of Bluetooth signals, say the system could expand the Contact Tracing Collaborative’s reach without compromising the privacy of smartphone users. The system assigns a random ID number to each phone user and keeps a running log of other nearby phones over the past 14 days, but they cannot be used to identify the users or their location because the ID numbers change every 10 to 20 minutes, according to the RFR.
But some states have struggled to get residents to participate. The Nevada Department of Health and Human Services has seen its app downloaded under 70,000 times — under 3 percent of the state’s adult population — between the launch on Aug. 24 and Nov. 9, TIME magazine reported last week.
For the first program, the state is seeking bids from a community, such as a college campus, a workplace or even a municipality, to pilot digital contact tracing using technology released by Google and Apple in September.
Apple and Google launched EN Express in September to use Bluetooth signals to notify users if someone they know tested positive for COVID-19. The technology lets the COVID-positive user anonymously notify the phones that user was in close contact within the days leading up to the diagnosis.
Google’s version of EN Express comes on an app that must be downloaded by users. Apple’s version is built into the iPhone’s operating system and can work on devices with the latest updates if a user opts in, similar to how iPhone users get Amber alerts or severe weather notifications.
Before EN Express, Google and Apple partnered up to develop a design template — known as the Exposure Notification API — so software developers could build apps to help public health officials in various states track the spread of COVID-19. Developers have rolled out apps in Colorado, New York and at least a dozen other states, according to USA Today.
“While [exposure notification system] has existed for several months, there is still very limited evidence of the impact of this tool on public health and there is even less evidence of the impact of EN Express, because it launched so recently,” the document states. “This evidence is critical to determining the commonwealth’s approach.”
For the second program, the state wants a contractor to pilot its own third-party exposure notification app. The third-party app could use the Exposure Notification API created by Google and Apple or its own template, according to the document.
The purpose of this pilot is for the contractor to report whether a companion app to the Google/Apple API or an entirely separate third-party app could offer benefits that the EN Express can’t.
The state is also interested in third-party or companion apps that not only work on smartphones, but also on Bluetooth-enabled wearable devices “as an approach to maximizing equity and participation,” according to the document.
Bidders for the second program must also submit a bid for the first program, which suggests a third-party app would also be piloted in a Massachusetts community.
The third program is a privacy and security review. The state seeks contractors to review the privacy and security components of EN Express through the first pilot and a third-party app for the second pilot.
Privacy, effectiveness and equity appear to be chief concerns for the state as it decides whether to expand into digital contact tracing. The RFR asks bidders to answer several questions, including whether it does help notify more people who have been exposed to COVID-19 than the Contact Tracing Collaborative currently does through its calls.
- Under what conditions is EN technology more/less accurate?
- What are the various operational, maintenance, and cost elements the commonwealth would need to consider in order to deploy Bluetooth exposure notifications statewide?
- What is the public perception of Bluetooth exposure notification technology in Massachusetts?
- What are the most effective ways to encourage adoption of EN technology?
- What impact do Bluetooth exposure notifications have on the equity of the commonwealth’s COVID-19 response? Are there strategies to deploy EN technology to improve equity in the commonwealth’s COVID-19 response?
- What are the privacy/security considerations of deploying Apple/Google EN Express or third-party ENS apps or third-party companion apps in Massachusetts?
The state will not provide any identifiable COVID-19 surveillance data or other identifiable information to the contractors involved in the project.
The rollout of the project is expected to start in the next two months.
The state’s deadline for bids is Dec. 1. Contractors that get selected are expected to deliver presentations. Selected contractors are notified Dec. 11, and their estimated start date is Jan. 1. The programs are supposed to be completed on or around Feb. 26, depending on what’s negotiated for the final contracts.
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