Smartphone-driven covid-19 exposure notifications finally come to Alaska

(Photo by Matt Buxton/TMS)

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If you’ve poked around your smartphone’s menus long enough, you’ve probably stumbled across an option for exposure notifications—a system to anonymously alert you and others to possible exposures to covid-19—only to find the service isn’t available in Alaska.

That changed this week thanks to action by the University of Alaska Anchorage in launching the Alaska COVID ENX system. The program launched on iOS on Jan. 11 and will be coming to Android devices starting Jan. 18, according to an announcement by the university. It is voluntary and available to anyone in Alaska.

“Help slow the spread of COVID-19 by opting into a new smartphone tool called Alaska COVID ENX. The free tool works to alert users about possible COVID-19 exposure without sharing any personal information,” explains an announcement on UAA’s Facebook page.

Once you opt into the system by either digging through your settings on iPhone (you’ll find it in the third group down between Emergency SOS and Battery) or by downloading the Alaska COVID ENX app on Android (coming Jan. 18), your phone will start anonymously logging close contacts with other phones using the service through your phone’s Bluetooth. The companies behind it—which would be Google, Apple and others—say it doesn’t log any personal information or location data, just that you came into close contact with another user. If someone then reports that they’ve since tested positive for covid-19, the people on that anonymously logged list will get a notification and information on what to do next.

The state has zero involvement with the program, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said in a weekly covid-19 update, which might be a positive given everything.

“It’s a completely opt-in process, so it’s something you can initiate on your phone and share if you’re positive to notify others. The state isn’t involved in this, there’s no data sharing that we’re doing. We’re not sharing anyone’s results or really involved in this at all,” she said. “But this is a tool that we’ve been asked about quite a bit and wanted to make sure you know that UAA has been launching this and it’s available to Alaskans across the state.”

The underlying service was developed in a partnership between engineers from Google, Apple and other tech firms who saw smartphone technology could be used to combat the spread of the pandemic. It’s essentially a smartphone-based approach to contact tracing—the process of notifying close contacts of possible exposure to covid-19. With the pandemic moving into its third year, the state is winding down its contact tracing program to focus resources in other areas.

Here’s how it works:

But with big-tech comes big-tech concerns about privacy and security.

The companies have pledged the logged information is anonymous, doesn’t contain location data and that outside experts have vetted it, but uptake on the service has been spotty at best throughout the country. According to a recent report by The Washington Post, more than 20 states don’t use the program at all and utilization in participating states hasn’t been great either. Per that report, the app has been activated on more than 15 million devices in California with only about 3% of the state’s nearly 3.9 million covid-19 cases logged on the system.

The Government Accountability Office recently released a report on it that found that, essentially, there was little data to judge the effectiveness of the program.

“Because there was no good news story coming out of states that were using them, the states that were a little slower to move along or had concerns about costs or adoption rates didn’t ever get that reason to jump on the bandwagon and deploy them,” Karen L. Howard, the director of science and technology assessment at the GAO, told the Post.

That’s irked supporters of the program, who argue that with official governmental backing and widespread adoption it could be a useful tool to combat the pandemic in the United States. Other studies have suggested that even minimal uptake of the service can help reduce spread of the virus. An Oxford University study of people in England and Wales—where more than 56% of people were using the app at the time—found that increased usage corresponded with fewer cases. Another Google-backed study suggests a 15% uptake would make a difference.

Why it matters: Contact tracing even in the best of times was an imperfect and labor-intensive process. The Alaska COVID ENX program not only can replace the soon-to-be-gone contact tracers but do a better, faster and more complete job at logging potential close contacts and providing them with information to limit the spread to others. Of course, whether people act on that information will be a key decider on whether or not the program is actually effective at curbing the spread of the virus. While it might not be the most useful in the not-so-dense Alaska, it could certainly be a useful tool in more crowded environments like a college campus.

The privacy concerns are not insignificant, however. Other countries have developed their own versions of the program but some, like Singapore, turned around and gave law enforcement access to the information collected in the app.

The U.S.-based system is, instead, driven by companies that have a keen interest in collecting personal information. Howard, the GAO’s author of the study, told the Post that it’s created a situation where these big companies get to set the policy.

“Because we didn’t have that national response, tech companies stood up and filled the gap,” Howard said. “But that also allows Apple and Google to set the policy. So instead of the policy being driven at a national level, it’s being driven by the tech companies. That’s a question that we in the United States need to ask ourselves, is that where the policy should be driven?”

Still, at the end of the day, it’s one more tool for a toolbox that’s in need of tools.

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