Washington launches app for tracking COVID-19 exposure

State stresses privacy of WA Notify service developed by Apple and Google

OLYMPIA — Starting this week, people living in Washington state can download an app to their iPhone or Android device that could notify them if they’ve been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

The WA Notify app, based on technology developed earlier in the pandemic as part of a joint effort between Apple and Google, is aimed at creating a free and private system to track the spread of COVID-19. 

The new WA Notify app could tell you if you’ve been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Image courtesy Washington Department of Health
The new WA Notify app could tell you if you’ve been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Image courtesy Washington Department of Health

“I encourage everyone to start using WA Notify today so we can continue to work together to contain this virus,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday. “Secure, private and anonymous exposure notification technology is an important tool for Washington.”

At a press conference Monday afternoon, Inslee and other state officials repeatedly stressed the privacy and security of the new app which over 200,000 people have already installed.

The app works primarily by using the phone’s bluetooth functionality to communicate anonymously with other nearby phones which also have the WA Notify app installed.

The new WA Notify app could tell you if you’ve been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Image courtesy Washington Department of Health
The new WA Notify app could tell you if you’ve been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Image courtesy Washington Department of Health

Should someone test positive for COVID-19, they would be contacted by public health officials and given a unique number. Once entered in the app, the system would notify anyone who had been close to the infected person for an extended period of time within the past 14 days that they may have been exposed.

“This system does not store any personal information,” Inslee stressed at a press conference on Monday. “It does not share any personal information … it does not track your location. Doesn’t know where you are.”

The system works by assigning individuals a unique code, which changes regularly. If your device was near a code which is later identified as a positive COVID-19 case, you receive a notification, devoid of any information about who may have exposed you, or where.

“WA Notify complements the actions Washington residents are already taking, like wearing masks, physical distancing and keeping gatherings small,” said Secretary of Health John Wiesman. “We’re excited to be joining the states already using this safe and secure technology and encourage all Washingtonians to join the effort.”

Those states include Colorado, Virginia, and New York, along with much of Canada, Ireland, and Germany.

“Data suggests that even a small number of people that used WA Notify in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties alone reduced infections by up to 11 percent,” said Inslee, “and deaths by up to 15 percent.”

Before launching WA Notify, Washington state received a recommendation to adopt the technology from an oversight committee which included security and civil liberties experts and community leaders representing communities of color, individuals with disabilities and other communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. 

The committee originally examined an app developed by the University of Washington (UW) that informed the technology for the Google Apple solution.

WA Notify is seen as a potential game changer, especially for college campuses where outbreaks amongst students have proven difficult to contain.

UW contributors to the app include the schools of computer science, medicine, public health and nursing, as well as support from the Brotman Baty Institute. The UW tested WA Notify with students during the month of November to help inform a successful statewide roll-out.

“The goal, from the very start, was to use this technology to help to minimize the spread of COVID-19, while protecting user’s privacy,” said UW President Ana Mari Cauce on Monday.

“I plan to add WA Notify to my phone and I will encourage my friends and family to use it as well,” said  Associate Professor Stefano Tessaro with the UW Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “People are understandably concerned these days about being tracked and having their personal information compromised. However, the technology behind WA Notify has been vetted by security and privacy experts across the world, and it does not collect or store any information that personally identifies its users.”

Inslee and Wiesman both stressed that the app should be viewed only as one more tool in the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, and not a replacement for mask wearing or physical distancing.

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About The Author

Chris Brown comes to Clark County Today with 15 years of local news experience as a reporter, editor, and anchor at KXL News Radio and KOIN-6 TV in Portland. In 2016, he won an Oregon Association of Broadcaster's award for Best Investigative Reporting for a series on America's Violent Youth. He has also been awarded by the Associated Press for Best Breaking News coverage as editor of Portland's Morning News following the 2015 school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The second oldest of eight home-schooled children, Brown graduated from high school two years early. After several odd jobs, he earned an internship at KXL Radio, eventually working his way into a full-time job. Brown has lived in Clark County his entire life, and is very excited at the opportunity to now focus full-time on the significant stories happening in his own back yard, rather than across “the river.’’ After a few years in Vancouver, he recently moved back to Battle Ground with his wife and two young daughters. When he's not working to report what's happening in Clark County, Brown enjoys spending time with his family, playing music, taking pictures, or working in the yard. He also actually does enjoy long walks on the beach, and sunsets.

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