Will Virginia Lead the U.S. to Adopt Smart Tracing Apps?

Silicon Valley was going to help America keep track of COVID-19 with badly needed technology. Yet, states never embraced the idea, and tech firms couldn’t overcome privacy concerns. But the idea is getting a reboot.

Technology was supposed to help government health departments with the heavy lift in tracking and tracing the spread of the coronavirus. After all, with billions of smartphones in use around the globe, adding another app that would alert users when they were in the proximity of a person or people who were COVID-positive seemed like a no-brainer.

But as Governing's Senior Staff Writer Alan Greenblatt explained, it never worked that way. Most states showed little interest in using the app developed to run on Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS operating systems. Instead, states opted to build their own, which meant interoperability became a problem, making it tougher to share information across state lines. 

Google and Apple sought to minimize privacy concerns when they designed their tracing API, reported Greenblatt. It can only be used by government health departments or their contractors, which can’t store data themselves. The API requires agencies to disable their apps when the pandemic ends.

The system relies on anonymized Bluetooth data, which is changed repeatedly. If two people using the app are near each other, their phones collect an anonymous identification from each other in what is sometimes called a “handshake.”

If one of the users is later diagnosed with COVID-19, that user can then decide — voluntarily — whether to notify the people he or she came into contact with. Notifications include no information about who potentially exposed them or where any exposure may have occurred. It’s basically a flag warning them that getting tested might be a good idea.

But by mid-June, while countries in Europe moved ahead with tech as the means to trace the coronavirus, the U.S. remained stuck with manual tracing programs.

Then last week, Virginia launched the first contact tracing app in the U.S. using technology from Apple. The state hopes that the app, COVIDWISE, can help it catch new cases faster
, writes Reuters reporter Paresh Dave, though long delays in getting test results must be overcome in order for it to be effective.

Phones with the app 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.

Gov. Ralph Northam emphasized the privacy aspects of the app when it was launched. “Now, I want you all to listen to this very closely. I want to be clear, this app, COVIDWISE, does not — I will repeat that — does not track or store your personal information. It does not track you at all,” he said during a televised briefing.

At least three more states are nearing the launch of similar apps, aiming to ease the burden on underfunded manual contact tracing teams.

Still, the U.S. 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.

Tod is the managing editor of Governing and the contributing editor of our sister publication, Government Technology. He was previously the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.