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In Washington, your phone can now tell if you may have been exposed to COVID-19 — and, if you may have exposed somebody else

Washington has now joined the growing number of states enabling smartphone notifications if someone you’ve been close to ends up testing positive for COVID-19.

Opting into the WA Notify system jointly created by Google and Apple will add phone users to what Gov. Jay Inslee Monday called “a simple, anonymous exposure notification tool.”

Iphone users should search for “Exposure Notifications” to enable the system on their phones while Android users can download the app. You can learn more about joining the system here.

Already rolled out in 15 states as of last week, the system has been running as a trial here with students and staff at the University of Washington.

Here’s Geekwire on the technology:

The app takes advantage of low-energy Bluetooth signals emitted by smartphones to detect and remember interactions, allowing people to be notified if they’ve been in proximity to someone who later tests positive for COVID. It does not collect any personal information to identify app users or track their movements.

The key element of the system comes when a WA Notify user becomes ill. If someone tests positive, medical workers will now be able to provide the infected person a code to enter in the app. WA Notify will then alert users about the possible exposure.

The rollout comes as case totals continue to soar and hospitalizations and deaths are beginning to slowly climb. New cases have now dropped to around 550 a day in King County after spiking to near 700.

But experts worry that we’ll see a new run higher after Thanksgiving gatherings.

A new report on exposure in King County shows shows the most commonly reported environments after “household” are “community and social gatherings” followed by “non-healthcare workplace” indicating many people are becoming sick from meeting with people outside their households or going to work.

About 2% of people who have caught the virus have died. So far, King County has lost 858 people to COVID-19 related deaths including two more reported Sunday.

It’s not clear how much of a difference the exposure notifications can make. For one, people will have to act on the information and decide to quarantine if they receive an alert. State officials say an adoption rate of 15% could cut cases by 11% and deaths by as much as 15%.


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Max
Max
1 month ago

For Android users: The app they said to search for on the Google Play Store simply doesn’t exist yet, which is, uh, odd.

Max
Max
1 month ago

Sorry, update, their instructions are wrong. This is the direct link (the app is “WA Notify”, not “Washington Exposure Notifications”)

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=gov.wa.doh.exposurenotifications

AppleFan
AppleFan
1 month ago

Would love some reporting on what took so long for the app…Apple and google have had this function available for months…just curious as to what the hold up might have been?

Jes
Jes
1 month ago
Reply to  AppleFan

Here you go:

> Even as tech solutions improved, Washington still needed to move cautiously in order to protect privacy concerns and address equity issues, Wiesman said. This summer the state convened an oversight committee including security and civil liberties experts as well as leaders representing people of color and other communities who are disproportionately impacted by the virus.

https://www.geekwire.com/2020/wa-notify-covid-exposure-app/

Amanda
Amanda
1 month ago

For folks concerned about the privacy of this and wanting to understand how these kind of things can work, I found this comic super helpful (details are slightly different & published back in April so reflects that, but this is the general idea). https://ncase.me/contact-tracing/

Dragon Scales
Dragon Scales
1 month ago
Reply to  Amanda

That comic cannot tell you if the app on your phone actually conforms to the privacy policies described in the comic. The comic seems to assume governments and big corporations, not to mention the individuals who comprise them, are benign actors who never make mistakes or engage in deliberate misconduct. Realists beg to differ.

Dragon Scales
Dragon Scales
1 month ago

Is the code for WA Notify open source? Has it been audited by an independent, third party for security and privacy issues? If the answer to either of these questions is no then you are a fool to trust the government and Big Tech and install the app on your phone. I looked at the DOH’s WA Notify page and found no the code is open source or has been appropriately audited.

Inslee can ignore or overlook the fact that his corrupt and/or incompetent appointee, ESD head Suzi LeVine oversaw the theft of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars and is now allegedly interfering with an audit of her malfeasance. But the state can’t spare a few thousand dollars to make the WA Notify code public and have it audited?

Eric Arrr
Eric Arrr
1 month ago
Reply to  Dragon Scales

I work for the independent company that was hired to do the security audit. The state didn’t have to pay for it; Google and Apple did.

Rest assured the people who looked at it are the best of the best.

Dragon Scales
Dragon Scales
1 month ago
Reply to  Eric Arrr

Great! Now the State of Washington can make the audit results public and make the code open source so people can feel more confident about their security and privacy when using WA Notify.

Dragon Scales
Dragon Scales
1 month ago
Reply to  Eric Arrr

WA Notify should be subject to both a privacy and security audit. Any audit does little good for public trust if the government and Big Tech keep its existence and results secret. In any case, the code still should be made open source.

Dragon Scales
Dragon Scales
1 month ago
Reply to  Dragon Scales

I wrote: “I looked at the DOH’s WA Notify page and found no the code is open source or has been appropriately audited.” I meant: “I looked at the DOH’s WA Notify page and found no evidence the code is open source or has been appropriately audited.”

Our “leaders” and public health professionals want us to trust them but they won’t take the minimal steps to earn that trust. Not a single article I’ve read about WA Notify even asks about making the code open source and having it audited for privacy AND security. They just take the bland assurances of officials on blind trust.

I know not everyone would be reassured by making the code open source and having it properly audited but that should still be the default best practices of all government agencies. Instead, it seems many “leaders” and some in the media would prefer to berate and demean people who don’t reflexively trust the government rather than try to earn trust. This goes for vaccines, too.

Last June Fortune ran a piece that included this:

A recent study by Avira suggests that 71% of Americans won’t download such an [COVID-19 contact tracing] app, 88% of those aged 55 or over and 84% of government or healthcare workers. The biggest concern amongst that sample was privacy, closely followed by a false sense of security.

Yet, Washington state apparently won’t take go beyond bear assertions about the privacy and security implications of WA Notify.

And, no, I’m not an anti-vaxxer. I got a flu shot this year and am up-to-date on other vaccines. I willingly wear a mask and take other standard COVID-19 precautions. However, the typical, contemptuous mainstream approach to government and science skeptics is counter-productive and make us all less safe.