RI’s new contact-tracing app: How it works and why the state wants you to use it

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island has launched a new contact tracing mobile app that will allow residents to track travel histories, monitor symptoms and connect with COVID-19 testing and services.

The app, called “Crush COVID RI,” was introduced by Gov. Gina Raimondo during her daily coronavirus briefing Tuesday afternoon.

“This is a homegrown app,” Raimondo said. “It’s going to be a tool that helps everybody in Rhode Island get through the crisis.”

“Crush COVID RI” is available to download now for both iOS and Android. Raimondo said the app is a new tool for residents to track their travel histories, while also making it easier for state health officials to analyze how the disease might be spreading after someone tests positive.

Chirag Patel, the state’s chief of information technology agency and enterprise applications, underscored that the app is entirely optional and data-protected.

Users can shut off location tracking, he added, meaning people can still use other services offered through the app even if they don’t want to share their travel histories.

“You can stop recording your location any time you want,” Patel explained. “There is absolutely no personal information that’s being stored on the app.”

The app collects 20 days worth of travel history and automatically deletes older information, according to Patel.

The R.I. Department of Health will not have real-time access to collected information and a user must choose to share it, Patel said.

“When I started this, I said to the team that, ‘I need you to make something that tracks contacts, and enables us to keep a lid on the virus, but protects people’s privacy and data in an ironclad way,’ so that’s what this is designed to do,” Raimondo said.

The American Civil Liberties Union executive director Steven Brown released a statement praising Raimondo for making the app opt-in and the location tracking voluntary, but said there are still some questions that need to be answered.

“We recognize the urgency of stemming the pandemic, and are not opposed to technological tools that may offer public health benefits,” Brown said in a statement. “However, deployed incorrectly, the app has the potential to interfere with public health efforts, undermine trust and violate an individual’s rights.”

His specific concerns included whether information would be shared with law enforcement, if the privacy protection protocols will be audited by a third party and whether private employers could require employees to use the app.

Users will be prompted once a day to answer questions about how they are feeling and will be asked to enter their ZIP codes, which would help public health officials track potential clusters of cases.

Raimondo encouraged everyone to download the app, saying that the more people that use the app the more useful the data will be to public health officials. She said she’d like to see more than 90% of the state using the app, but also acknowledged that any amount is better than none.

“We can’t stop it, we can only hope to contain it, so if everyone is on it we can quickly identify hot spots,” Raimondo said. “Even 5% of the population will help.”

For now, the app only tracks locations, so Raimondo said people should continue to keep a daily log of who they come in contact with. She said a future version might enable Bluetooth, which could notify users of potential exposure if they were in the vicinity of someone who tested positive.

“Future versions may have the ability to ping off other people’s phone,” Raimondo said. “But we’re not there yet.”

Rhode Islanders without a smartphone can access all of the app’s resources on the health department’s website or by calling the COVID-19 hotline at (401) 222-8022.

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