Virginia Rolls Out Virus-Exposure Smartphone App

Virginia launched a new smartphone app to help trace coronavirus infections on Wednesday. (Courthouse News photo/Brad Kutner)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — The same day Virginia announced over 95,000 total confirmed coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, the state’s governor rolled out a new phone app that notifies people if they have been near someone infected with the virus.

Covidwise, now available on smartphone app stores, uses Bluetooth technology to detect when two users are close by. It then keeps that information and if a user reports a positive coronavirus test, it will send an alert to those they’ve been in contact with over the last 15 days.

“We’re using every possible approach to fight this virus and keep Virginians healthy,” Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, said in a statement announcing the app Wednesday. He promised the system was “completely anonymous, protects personal privacy, and gives you an additional tool to protect yourself and your community.”

A Virginia Department of Health webpage about the app — released the same day the state reported more than 95,000 total positive cases — stresses it does not track location data and uses only voluntary reports of a positive test result.

“I want to be clear, this app does not track or store personal information,” Northam said. “And while we want everyone to download it, it is voluntary.”

The new app, the first in the U.S. to use new Google-backed technology, has already attracted some users.

Richmond resident Delaney Blom installed the app first thing Wednesday morning. An accountant with a local college, Blom said he hasn’t had much contact with people outside of a close neighborhood circle or the grocery store, but he’s willing to do whatever it takes to help stop the spread of the virus.

“Regardless of my limited exposure, if my participation can help slow and track the spread of the virus, I’m happy to comply,” he said in an interview.

As for privacy concerns, Blom said that was something he was more worried about in his youth. Now, with two kids and a wife who still goes into an office daily, he’s more concerned about the safety of those in his community.

“I believe that we live in a surveillance state [already], but mostly the government doesn’t really give a shit what you’re doing,” he said.

Emily Hartman is a business manager at a gym in Midlothian, just south of Richmond. She also installed Covidwise first thing Wednesday morning.

“I hope this helps people relax a little bit and stop attacking their fellow citizens,” she said in an interview. “Also I hope it will eventually give teachers and other workers confidence and ability to do their jobs.”

Privacy issues were low on her list of concerns too.

“At this point it’s all out there,” she said. “I just want to get society functioning again and I’m willing to give up some privacy to accomplish that goal.”

Hartman said she’ll also have her children download the app.

“Kids are app savvy,” she said.  “And most of my friends have kids that can drive already and have a tracing app on them.” 

Covidwise was developed by the California-based tech firm SpringML. The system uses Google Cloud to help maintain its databases, which the company promises will offer safety and security for the user.

“We are proud to be partnered with [the Virginia Department of Health] and Google Cloud to build the Covidwise application to help protect the community and stop the spread of the Covid-19,” SpringML CTO Girish Reddy said in a statement Wednesday.

Virginia’s tech community also says the app runs as well — and as privately — as one can hope.

“Exposure notification software allows contact tracers to work much faster, which is the boost we need to help make contact tracing useful,” Charlottesville-based software developer Waldo Jaquith said in a Twitter thread throwing his support behind the Covidwise effort.

“The software has no meaningful impact on battery life, storage, or bandwidth usage,” he added. “A notification that you’ve been exposed *combined* with symptoms that might otherwise be unremarkable, *is* useful!”

The app’s use of random numbers and Bluetooth is a bonus for digital privacy advocates too. The Electronic Frontier Foundation said this method, compared to the use of GPS data or requiring users to provide personal data to log in, offers a much more secure experience.  

“While there is early promise in some of the ideas for engineering proximity tracking apps, there are many open questions,” Andrew Crocker, senior staff attorney with EFF, wrote in a blog post detailing possible Covid proximity-based app options like Covidwise.

One section of the post said a system similar to Virginia’s — one that collects anonymous user data in a central system and allows users to ping the app to check for positive contacts — might still put too much personal information on state-run servers, despite its benefits.

“[This system] may still allow the authority to learn the real identities of infected users,” Crocker wrote. “With more sophisticated safeguards, like cryptographic mixing, the system could offer slightly stronger privacy guarantees.”

Still, for folks like Blom and Hartman, that’s a sacrifice they’re willing to make if it gets things back to some kind of normal.

“I’m not concerned about jackbooted thugs from the health department,” Blom said. 

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