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11 Investigates COVID-19 contact tracing apps and concerns over your privacy

As COVID-19 cases rise, some people and government agencies are turning to contact tracing apps to help monitor the spread of the virus.

So how exactly does that work, and how much information do they get?

Carnegie Mellon University Professor Po-Shen Loh led a team developing NOVID, a contact tracing app designed to notify users when someone who self-reports testing positive for COVID-19 comes near them.

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“As you’re walking around in public if you happen to be near somebody else who also has the app installed, the 2 apps communicate with each other through Bluetooth,” Loh said.

The NOVID app also uses ultrasound to improve accuracy. “We don’t just use only Bluetooth because it might accidentally miscategorize people as being together when they were separated by a wall,” Loh said.

The contact tracing app being developed in a joint effort by Google and Apple also uses Bluetooth, but neither uses GPS.

Both apps' creators say the information collected remains anonymous.

“As soon as you install the app it generates random user ID that has nothing to do with you. It doesn’t tell your name or your phone number,” Loh said.

If you search contact tracing in the app store, a multitude of different apps some up, so you need to be careful what you download. Cyber security experts say to especially avoid the ones that use GPS.

“I’d be concerned about all the info that could be available for a hacker to get, personal info, location, where you’ve been, have you had a positive test for COVID-19, those are things that should be kept private,” said Critical Start CEO Rob Davis.

Recent polls show 60% of Americans are wary about using these apps.

“There’s a lot of people because of distrust of government or Apple or Google and concerns about privacy are not using these apps,” Davis said.

Loh said more than 40,000 people have downloaded the NOVID app, and Pennsylvania’s State Health Department said it is working on an app to use the Apple-Google platform.

“The biggest problem is getting enough people to utilize these applications so the automatic contact tracing becomes useful,” Davis said.

Overcoming that hurdle will be necessary to make these apps truly effective.

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