12 Responds: What’s the new COVID-19 tracking feature on my phone?

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ A new feature on Apple and Android devices that allows for COVID-19 exposure tracking is leaving many people confused and concerned.

Several people have written to “12 Responds” asking about what it does and how it got there. The setting is not connected to Rhode Island’s “Crush COVID RI” app and was actually rolled out to devices by tech giants Apple and Google.

Brown University Computer Science Professor Anna Lysyanskaya has been working with a team of experts to determine a way to automate the often labor-intensive contact-tracing process and said the new technology is meant to help in this endeavor.

Their idea was to utilize something called Bluetooth low energy — the same technology that allows us to pair our phones with wireless headphones or other bluetooth devices — to figure out when one device is close to another. That way, if a person tests positive for COVID-19, all people that were in close contact with that person (and their phone) would be automatically alerted.

“All of us thought, ‘Well, if only Apple could just create something called an ‘API’ so you could build an app on top of it, then this could become a reality,” Lysyanskaya said.

Apple and Google did just that and rolled it out to devices in their latest update. Lysyanskaya said right now, it’s not functional because no apps are currently using it.

“At the moment these apps are still in development so this is more kind of looking to the future,” Lysyanskaya said.

One app that could, theoretically, use the new Bluetooth contact tracing technology is Rhode Island’s “Crush COVID RI” app. A spokesperson for the state’s Department of Administration said the app is not utilizing the new technology, and there are currently no plans to integrate it. A new version of the app is expected in July. So far, nearly 50,000 Rhode Islanders have downloaded the app, which relies on GPS, and not Bluetooth, to track where its users go.

Lysyanskaya said GPS tracking is less precise.

In the Bay State, the Massachusetts Community Tracing Collaborative said in a statement that, “…if these technologies meet our needs, including effectively identifying contacts and protecting users’ privacy, we will consider integrating those advanced methods into our traditional work.”

Lysyanskaya said if a compatible app is released and a user decides to turn the Bluetooth functionality on, their personal information would never be shared.

“There is no private information being exchanged,” she explained. “No actual contact information is being exchanged. When our devices come into contact with each other, my device sends your device a completely random string that it makes up on the spot, and your device also sends me a completely random string of bits that it makes up on the spot, so in the absence of any other information, all I know is, ‘Oh I was in proximity to another device.'”

Users would be alerted that they were close to someone who tested positive, but the technology would not tell them who it was.

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