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Pennsylvania on Track to Meeting Tracing App Use Goals

The contact tracing app has been downloaded more than 77,000 times since it was launched for smartphone users Tuesday. The state health department's goal is to reach 100,000 downloads by next week.

by Alexis Johnson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / September 25, 2020
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(TNS) — An app launched by Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration earlier this week to notify state residents about possible exposure to COVID-19 is on track to exceed its early user projections.

The COVID Alert PA app, which is intended to fight the spread of the coronavirus, has been downloaded more than 77,000 times since it was launched for smartphone users Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Department of Health said Thursday.

The health department's goal is for 100,000 downloads by next week, according to Maggi Mumma, the department’s deputy press secretary.

The app asks users to report symptoms of COVID-19, while also providing data on daily user check-ins and a breakdown of cases statewide. The health department also asks state residents 18 and older to alert the app if they have tested positive for COVID-19 by using a random six-digit code issued by the department after a positive test. Users also get notifications if they have come within 6 feet of an infected person, who also has downloaded the app, for at least 15 minutes within the past 14 days. 

Similar COVID-19 tracing technology has been launched by Apple and Google internationally since the start of the pandemic. The technology is automatically installed on smartphones but users have to voluntarily activate it in their settings.

While the Pennsylvania app is meeting the state’s user projections, it has received mixed reviews from residents. Some have praised the app’s potential benefits; others have expressed concern over privacy. 

“I’m thrilled with this new COVID app and downloaded it as soon as I saw it available,” Jacob Punturi, 24, of Highland Park, said in a Direct Message to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Wednesday. “I think it will be a huge benefit if we have a large amount of people on it, but I doubt there will be enough cooperation from the community at large.”

Pittsburgh resident Morgan Roberts agreed that it will be a challenge to persuade millions of state residents to download and use the app.

“Having something tangible for me to be an active participant in minimizing the spread makes me feel like I am working to ensure public health and safety,” Ms. Roberts said Wednesday. “The trouble will be getting people en masse to download and utilize [the app].”

Their sentiments coincided with a tone of skepticism on social media from some who fear Pennsylvania will use the app to track personal data and obtain private information. 

One Twitter user called it a “big brother app,” while another wrote, “Just say no to government tracking!”

The health department said it plans to buy media advertising time as early as next week to help reinforce awareness of the app and eliminate suspicions about tracking user locations. 

“The department and its partners worked tirelessly to bring an app that does not collect a user's location information,” said Ms. Mumma. “It is strictly an exposure notification service that uses Bluetooth technology. Bluetooth technology is the same technology that connects your phone to wireless headphones, or even you car.”

John Sancenito, president of Information Network Associates Inc., a Harrisburg-based cybersecurity company, said his team plans to test the COVID Alert PA app for safety and privacy concerns in its digital forensic lab. 

Mr. Sancenito said Thursday that residents should always be wary when installing apps on their phones, and he recognizes that those concerns are heightened when the government is involved. 

“The reality is that few people pay attention to the user’s agreements or what their apps request access to,” he said. “Many apps ask for access to your contact lists and location data. Most people grant authorization to apps without any consideration of the implications.”

Mr. Sancenito agreed, however, that the state’s app, if used widely, can indeed aid in the fight against the spread of the virus.

“The app can be helpful for contract tracing and would provide faster updates to those who may have been exposed to someone with COVID,” he said. “The COVID-19 tracing apps have some built-in features to help protect the privacy of the user. Most common apps on user phones do not.”

New York, New Jersey and other states are expected to unroll their own versions of the app in the coming weeks.

©2020 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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