[TWO SIDES, ONE ISSUE] COVIDawareMN
December 14, 2020
COVIDawareMN app is what everyone should be using
In late November, Governor Tim Walz released an announcement about the new COVIDaware MN app that notifies an individual they might’ve been infected with COVID-19 based on close contact tracing. This bluetooth-enabled app was created to lessen the spread of COVID-19 around Minnesota that has already had almost 300,000 lab confirmed cases of the virus. The app tracks how long someone has been next to an individual and confirms whether or not that interaction was long enough for exposure. The app recognizes other devices that are six feet within range with the Bluetooth Low Energy technology, but it doesn’t identify the individual or expose an individual to another person.
This technology does introduce concerns around privacy, but the app ensures privacy is kept safe while also helping combat the spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota. According to the COVIDawareMN FAQ page, the app never tracks an individual’s location, no data is ever sent to the MN Department of Health (or Apple and Google) without permission, it never sends personal information through tracking, and never accesses any other information on an individual’s phone. Not only this,but the app is completely anonymous and voluntary. State Infectious Diseases Director Kris Ehresmann is in favor of the app. He explains that this app will be useful right now and will be more effective than the state and local contact tracers who normally have to interview individuals infected and try to find out who they’ve been in contact with. Not only this but according to Governor Tim Walz, the app will also help trace asymptomatic people who might now be aware they have the virus, especially young adults.
So how does this app work? If a user tests positive for COVID-19, they can choose to notify other individuals on the app they may have been in contact with. To do this they must receive a test verification code provided by a private contact investigator and enter it in the app. Once it’s entered, the app notifies any individual who may have been 6 feet or closer to this individual who tested positive at any time. The app also provides an estimate of when the contact may have occurred using the Bluetooth technology. The personal information of the individual who tested positive is never collected, stored or released to other users. Also, there is no worry for false information sent out to users because people who test positive must receive that verification code from the private contact investigator to release anything on the app.
Despite all the good, there is a small concern that comes with the app regarding responsibility of individuals who test positive and whether or not they will notify users that they are COVID positive. The COVIDaware MN app is good because it helps prevent future COVID-19 in Minnesota and does no harm to the user involved. Though some people either might not use the app or will not use it properly, there is a chance that some people will use it responsibly and properly. If just one more person can quarantine or know they have the virus and choose to stay away, that saves a lot of people from getting exposed to the virus. Though it may be a small percentage of Minnesota who use the app properly, that small percentage can still make a huge difference in combating the spread of COVID-19 with this app making it a necessary and effective program.
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. 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.