State smartphone exposure notification apps receive mixed reviews – GCN


State smartphone exposure notification apps receive mixed reviews

COVID-19 exposure notification apps that alert people when they have been in the vicinity of an infectious user present five major challenges that limit the use of the apps and the ability to determine their effectiveness, according to a new report of the Government Accountability Office.

GAO studied app usage in nine states – Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington – between November 2020 and this month, and released its “Exhibition notification»Technology review on September 9.

The first challenge cited by GAO is the accuracy of measuring the distance between users at the time of potential exposure, as distance calculations can only be estimated. Metrics that assess signal strength between apps on devices use a common smartphone wireless radio transmission technology called Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to broadcast dating messages that contain a random identifier. Any phone with the same or similar app that is within range of the broadcast signal can receive and store dating messages. If a message comes from the device of someone who has subsequently tested positive for COVID-19, the smartphone analyzes the distance between the devices to determine the risk and alert users.

But BLE can’t always reliably measure whether two smartphones are within 6 feet of each other – the social distancing standard, according to the report. Additionally, signal strength does not always decrease as people move away, and objects in the environment between a transmitter and receiver can interfere with the signal.

Privacy and security are a second area of ​​concern. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that apps undergo independent security and privacy assessments and that the results of those be made public, none of the nine states have. Five said they had conducted evaluations but had not published results. No public law has clear protection of the privacy of information collected by exposure notification apps, the report adds.

Security threats to applications include disclosure of the identity of an infected application user, denial of service attacks, phone tracking and false positives, or exposure notifications despite failing to be in close contact with an infected person.

A third challenge is adoption, GAO said. Some states have spent more than $ 3 million to market their apps, but the public still has doubts. Officials from six of the 11 states (the nine of GAO’s selected sample plus Louisiana and Utah, which provided feedback when they deployed apps in the later stages of GAO’s evidence collection) have said user concerns about using apps for surveillance were a major obstacle. The lack of understanding of how applications work and their availability were other obstacles.

The verification code delays were cited as another challenge, according to the GAO. These codes are used to confirm that a person has had a positive test or diagnosis before they can upload their recent temporary keys to the National Key Server. This process was developed by Microsoft and the Association of Public Health Laboratories so that nationwide applications can interact, allowing users to know if they have been exposed without needing to download and use applications from multiple States. Several states require a public health official to provide the code, and staff shortages have caused delays, GAO said.

“To help meet this challenge, five of the nine selected states have implemented an automated process to distribute the codes,” the report says. “Instead of providing the codes entirely through phone calls, some states also send text messages with the code or a link to a website with instructions on how to get the code. State officials reported that this automated distribution resulted in an increase in the number of verification codes distributed to users of the app.

The fifth challenge faced by GAO is the lack of evidence for the effectiveness of applications. One of the main reasons for this is that states collect limited data from apps and lack guidance on measuring effectiveness.

However, the report noted two main benefits of apps: speed and reach by automating and increasing manual contact tracing.

“Apps should also provide more complete and faster identification of contacts because, unlike manual contact tracing, they do not rely on a person’s memory to identify the people they have come into contact with,” according to CDC documents, “the auditors said.

In the report, GAO offers four policy options to help address the five challenges: research and development, privacy and security standards and practices, best practices, and national strategy. “Policymakers could recommend a national app that public health authorities may decide to use based on their individual needs,” suggests the report. “A national application could add more functions by integrating exposure notification capabilities with test planning and coordination of vaccine delivery. “

As of June, nearly 26 of the 56 states, U.S. territories and Washington, DC, had deployed an exposure notification app for COVID-19, all using a system jointly developed by Google and Apple and released in May 2020. Also in June , the number of times apps were downloaded in selected states ranged from 200,000 to over 2 million.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in Northern Virginia.

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