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Coronavirus

COVID-19 virus tracking apps are here – are they safe to download?

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact our daily lives, many of us have already gotten used to the constant disruption. Athletic events are irregularly scheduled, many stores continue to require masks and millions of Americans are still working from home nearly 6 months after the virus first arrived in America.

But there is reason to be hopeful. As of now, tests that confirm COVID-19 are becoming faster and more accurate than before. Beyond that, contact tracing apps that can alert users of their exposure risk are finally starting to emerge here in the U.S. Tap or click here to see what the first one looks like.

Contact tracing apps offer a convenient way to stay aware of our risk factor, but a lack of widespread adoption will make them totally ineffective. And now, several new apps from different states are just becoming available to download. Only one question remains: Are they actually safe to use on your phone?

New contact tracing apps arrive in America

Despite the fact that contact tracing apps have existed for some time in other parts of the world, the U.S. is finally getting its own share of apps that can potentially help people stay informed about their exposure to the virus. The hope, should widespread adoption occur, is that enough people will know their risk status so they can do their part to slow the spread.

The first of these apps, Virginia’s COVIDWISE, debuted on August 5. But several new states have followed up with their own apps, and more may be coming down the pipeline depending on how these programs perform.

All of the apps are designed to take advantage of Apple and Google’s jointly-developed API for exposure notifications. Tap or click here to see how the COVID-19 exposure notification API works.

Here are all the COVID-19 tracing apps and the states that have made them available so far:

  • Virginia: The COVIDWISE app is available to download for both iOS and Android.
  • North Dakota: The Care19 Alert app is available to download for both iOS and Android.
  • Wyoming: The state of Wyoming also uses the Care19 Alert app, which is available to download for both iOS and Android.
  • Alabama: The GuideSafe app is available to download for both iOS and Android.
  • Nevada: The COVID Trace app is available to download for both iOS and Android.
  • Arizona: Arizona’s app, COVID Watch Arizona, is currently being tested by the University of Arizona and expected to be released in the next several weeks.

These apps will typically require you to enter a code you’ll get with a positive test result. This data is then uploaded to a health-authority server that anonymizes it and makes it available to other apps performing their daily check-ins. If the app sees one of its reports match its list of confirmed contacts, it sends an exposure notification and advises quarantine.

Sounds good, right? Well, there is still a high degree of skepticism from many would-be users — particularly when it comes to privacy. Tap or click here to see some of the biggest privacy issues users are worried about.

Big deal or Big Data?

One of the sticking points for many potential adopters is the fact that a large amount of sensitive data is encrypted, exchanged and shared between devices. This includes medical records and location data, among other things.

In a bubble, these apps could offer the general public a good deal of hope and safety, but there is always the issue of whether or not the developers behind these apps took data security seriously enough. If these apps aren’t properly secured, hackers can easily hijack data or pilfer information should they crack into their servers.

As for whether the apps are safe to use or not, we can’t say for sure because we don’t know the full extent of their data protection systems. It’s not that we don’t trust the people making the apps, but we’re not sure we can trust their expertise on cybersecurity considering that even the best and brightest companies in the world are getting hacked these days.

But contact tracing apps, in general, can be a big help to the population, and if you want to participate and help slow the spread, here are some suggestions to make the experience much safer for your data:

  • Bluetooth concerns: Disable Bluetooth when you’re at home alone or away from large crowds where you’d need the exposure notifications. To do this, follow these steps:
    • On iOS: Open Settings and tap Bluetooth. Toggle the switch into the Off position. Turn it back on when you will be entering crowded areas again.
    • On Android: Open Settings and tap Connected Devices, followed by Connection Preferences. Tap Bluetooth and toggle the switch to disable Bluetooth. Turn it back on when you will be going into crowded areas again and want to receive notifications.
  • Personal data: Never keep passwords, email addresses or other login data in your notes or reminders.
  • GPS: Always disable location services and GPS when visiting crowded areas. To do this, follow these steps:
    • On iOS: Open Settings and tap Privacy. Tap Location Services and toggle the switch to the Off position.
  • On Android: Open Settings and tap Location. At the top, toggle Use Location to the off position.
  • Identity Theft: Store all personally-identifying information aside from your phone number and contact information in a secure location like Apple’s Health app.

If you implement these changes, at the very least, you’ll have a much easier time using these apps without living in fear of hackers. At the same time, it might also be worth waiting a few weeks to see just how these apps perform before diving in. Early adopters are often the “guinea pigs” of any new releases. Maybe it’s best to watch the beta testing wrap itself up first.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have regarding a medical condition, advice, or health objectives.

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