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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Sue Lani Madsen: WA Notify – Say What?

On Monday, an epic fail of mapping technology turned what should have been a simple 23-mile trip into a 37-mile scenic route. It wasn’t useful information.

This week’s subject is the technology behind WA Notify, the nickname for Washington Exposure Application. While it will be another layer in the Swiss cheese model for reducing the inherent risks of living with an endemic virus, it won’t be an easy fix. It has more holes than cheese.

When Gov. Inslee rolled out the WA Notify app two weeks ago, he was enthusiastic about the potential to reduce the spread of COVID-19. WA Notify uses Bluetooth technology to connect smartphones. If your phone spends 15 minutes or more within 6 feet of another WA Notify-enabled phone with its Bluetooth turned on, the app makes a note of the unique codes for each phone and the date of the close contact.

After a positive COVID-19 test, public health staff issues a secret code to plug into the app, and the phone notifies all the other phones it’s been near in the past 14 days. If one of them was yours, now you know you might have been exposed, along with advice on what to do next.

It all sounds so simple. And it is, if everyone has a phone, has Bluetooth enabled, follows through to enter the code, pays attention to the notification and finds useful information.

While WA Notify can tell you the date of the exposure, the app was not designed to track either names or locations out of an abundance of caution over privacy concerns, according to the state Department of Health. The privacy, it turns out, is too effective. Knowing the context of an exposure is critical. You might self-quarantine for 14 days on a notification triggered by a bus ride with an unmasked guy coughing. Shutting down your life for two weeks after standing in a line of politely masked people just a smidge too close at an outdoor Christmas tree lot is too high a price for the minimal risk.

The biggest barrier to widespread adoption is lack of trust. Imagine some responses as to whether people will download WA Notify:

“I do not trust the current system in our state. Where I go and what I do is none of their business.”

“I would never volunteer to be tracked in any way for any reason. I take appropriate precautions, but this is one step I will not do.”

“It seems to have some privacy protections built in. I’m not sure how much I trust that. So, I am not having it on my phone in case I want to go some place without being tracked (although it’s unclear that’s even possible anymore).”

“Nope. You just know hackers are already working on it.”

DOH provides assurances there’s no tracking, no names connected with the app codes, it can’t be hacked, all is safe and secure. Meanwhile, lack of trust is at epidemic levels. The concern is the potential to add location tracking on any downloaded app. Rebuilding trust after this year is going to take more than easy words. Or as one respondent put it:

“Besides the basic privacy concerns, I’m more concerned about the competency of the Inslee administration to protect my information. ESD fell for a Nigerian prince scam AFTER a $40 million+ security upgrade. This administration needs to earn back the trust of the people.”

Not a great context for Washington state government to say, “Trust us, we know what we’re doing with technology.”

Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center has not only downloaded the app but advocates for using it. He agrees there are reasons to be skeptical, but pointed out there is more privacy than in traditional contact-tracing interviews. Myers admitted he might be less sensitive to the privacy issues as a semi-public person, but, “If we don’t start finding ways to limit the spread that aren’t intrusive, then what we get is Gov. Inslee locks the economy down.”

The target set at the Nov. 30 rollout to consider WA Notify “measurably effective” was 15% of smartphone users. There is no way to measure if users are spread across the state or self-selected in some counties, if they’re using the app, or if they’re responding to notifications. There is no way to measure effectiveness in reducing infections or deaths.

Good news for the DOH is current downloads are at about 20% and they can declare victory. If only the technology could tell us if we still need to be operating in a state of emergency. Are we there yet?

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com.

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