When they first started talking about the COVID Alert app, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. There were two things about the descriptions I had heard that didn’t sound good. First, they called it a contact-tracing app. I had visions of this short film, all being done by this app. I had visions of it collecting all sorts of data and doing who knows what with it. I’m aware that lots of apps do this, hence the film mentioned above, but this one felt even creepier because there was the potential for health data too.
On top of that, I imagined it fueling paranoia. They described it as if all you had to do was walk by someone and if it knew they had the virus, it would yell about it.
But when I read up on it, it seemed not so bad.
Here’s what it actually does.
The app uses Apple and Google’s notification API, which uses Bluetooth technology to share randomized codes with other nearby smartphones. These codes can’t identify users. Apple and Google’s API, which is the software that makes this app work, is being used in several countries, including Australia, Denmark, Germany, Italy and the U.K.
In short, Apple and Google designed the API as ‘plug-and-play.’ Health agencies can build an app that utilizes the API, which handles the trading of codes. These anonymous codes are stored on-device. When someone tests positive, they can use the unique code provided with the result to upload their stored codes. Then, other smartphones check the uploaded codes for matches. If there’s a match, it notifies the user of potential exposure to COVID-19 and provides some next steps.
It also doesn’t use your location, ask for your address, use GPS, sift through your contacts, or hoover down any other health data about you. Here’s a quick tour of the app.
One thing neither of these articles mention is you have to have been within 6 feet of someone who told the app they were COVID-19 positive for more than 15 minutes to get warned that you may have been exposed. That makes me feel better. This pandemic has already caused way too much fear of each other. We don’t need our phones doing the equivalent of screaming “unclean! Unclean!” if it even gets a sniff of someone who might be positive.
The only way this app can succeed is if lots of us use it. Otherwise, it won’t have a database of codes to pull from. I never thought I would, but I’ve downloaded the app. After initial setup, I haven’t heard from it since and that’s good. Hopefully it never goes off.