Imperfections arise with COVIDawareMN app

Right off the bat, one thing must be made clear: the release of the COVIDawareMN app is a good thing.

However, this doesn’t mean that it’s perfect.

Earlier in April of this year, Apple and Google announced a joint effort to help stem the spread of COVID-19 through the use of Bluetooth technology. The updates to both company’s software enabled the use of Bluetooth’s Relative Signal Strength Indicator to determine when and where an individual may have contracted or spread coronavirus. The software does so by measuring the strength of Bluetooth signals around one’s phone, and correlating it with users’ personal COVID diagnosis data, provided that the area in which they reside has a provided COVID-tracking app. This announcement came following the adoption of similar Bluetooth-based programs in countries such as Singapore with their app “TraceTogether,” which many experts credit as the beginning of the Bluetooth-tracking bandwagon.

So why has it taken MN leaders so long to create an app?

The major concern, of course, is privacy. Before COVIDawareMN was even created, the debate surrounding patient confidentiality and privacy has plagued tracking app discourse, namely when it comes to what sort of database to use. Apps connected to central databases allows for scientists and analysts to observe the data collected for patterns and detect possible hotspots, but it would also mean that personal data is held in a government-controlled surveillance system, and as is typical in America, not many people enjoy the sound of that proposal. This leads to the other option, de-centralized databases, like those used for the COVIDawareMN app.

According to MN officials, users of COVIDawareMN will be identified with random rotating ID numbers, and all of their personal data will be encrypted. And according to MN IT Services Commissioner Tarek Tomes, users of the app will only be notified about exposure risks, and all notifications will be completely anonymous, with no local information provided, only the time frame of possible exposure. Also, it is only optional for a user to log their recent diagnosis in the app.

While these measures sound great for personal privacy, they still leave room for concern. For one, the optionality of logging positive COVID tests renders the app unreliable and almost useless if users do not take personal responsibility for their infection. It also does not ensure that those notified of possible exposure will, indeed, self-isolate and take other recommended safety measures.

Not only are opt-in tracking apps unreliable due to human behavior, but their roll-out has also been extremely slow.”

Not only are opt-in tracking apps unreliable due to human behavior, but their roll-out has also been extremely slow. In states like North Dakota, who have also released a state-funded COVID-tracking app, less than 5% of the population downloaded the app, and even fewer correctly logged their positive test results. Before the release of COVIDawareMN, HealthPartners attempted to create their own app, called SafeDistance to try and log people with reported respiratory issues similar to COVID-19 symptoms, and then crowdsourcing to individuals around them to track spread. The app was inevitably unsuccessful, with Google Play refusing to carry the app on their platform as HealthPartners did not have an endorsement from MN’s Department of Health.

And, of course, Bluetooth is never 100% perfect. Another issue that has arisen is that the apps’ software tracks distances between devices, not people. This means that it is possible to get a false exposure alert if, let’s say, an individual’s apartment complex neighbor tested positive, even though the individual is separated from the infected by walls and windows. While not as dangerous of an issue as the optional features of the app, they’re still concerning especially since users do not know who may have exposed them, prompting unnecessary quarantines.

In all, COVIDawareMN is a step in the right direction. However, it’s not a catch-all, foolproof plan for tracking exposure. Even if you have the app, it’s essential that you keep track of who you spend time with and if you’ve been exposed. It’s also extremely important that you go above and beyond doing what the app asks of you, which means taking responsibility for your own self-isolation, mask-wearing, and social-distancing.

Even with COVIDawareMN downloaded to your phone, remember to be smart, be informed, and be cautious.