GLENSIDE, Pa. (WLVT) — The state Department of Health is launching an app called COVID Alert PA that will ping you if you’re near someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.
At a press conference held last week, health secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said the app will help the state keep track of cases — and notify people who may need to quarantine.
"We want you to know that the entire system is anonymous. And the entire system is completely voluntary. It does not really track your travels but instead uses the same tech our phones use to communicate with one another. We are very committed and conscious of protecting the privacy and security of all Pa’s. We are working with other states to ensure it works in other states as well. All of our efforts are designed to support our communities to lessen the impact of the contagious virus COVID-19," said Levine.
The app utilizes technology from Apple and Google to measure time and distance near another device within Bluetooth range. Users who download the app will be alerted if they spent 15 minutes or more near someone who tested positive.
Peggy McCoey, who teaches cybersecurity at La Salle University, explained how the tech works.
"The app is essentially going to look at all of your location pings and send the information back to the app’s server to see, if within about a 14 day period, you had been in close proximity to someone who has coronavirus," McCoey told PBS39. "So this app is constantly going to be running in the background of your smartphone. The signal itself is not going to have that wide of a range, a Bluetooth signal can only travel a few feet — and it won’t work if something is blocking it. In order for this to work overall, a large number of people will need to download it. Remember, no one can force you to download it."
Vitaly Ford, assistant professor of computer science at Arcadia University, says there are pros and cons to downloading the app.
"I believe in technology, so I think it’s a great thing to stay informed," Ford told PBS39. "Would I install an app like this? Yes."
Vitaly says he'd like to learn more about the app, and has questions about how it will maintain user anonymity.
UPDATE: The Department of Health sent PBS39 an update about how the app works, saying: "The app does not enable any location services and is designed to be completely anonymous. If someone gets an alert through the app saying that they may have had a close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, the state of Pennsylvania does not know who that person is."
The health department tells PBS39 that it's working to finalize the data and privacy policies of the app.
Ford says like any app you download, you’ll need to read the terms of service to get the full picture.
"You always want to read the terms of service and read about the apps permissions. This COVID tracking app will most likely need access to your phone’s GPS. It should not need access to your camera and microphone. If it asks for that, I’d say that’s a red flag. Before you download this app, you’ll want to read all of the terms," said Ford.
COVID Alert PA will hit app stores sometime this month. PBS39 checked Apple and Android stores today and did not find it available to download.
Watch our Tech Takeover segment during PBS39 News Tonight at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020.