California to make smartphones residents’ latest tool for tracking COVID-19


Beginning Thursday, Android- and iPhone-users in California may sign up for notifications alerting them of exposure to others who opted in to the same technology and recently tested positive for the coronavirus.

The process is private, anonymous and secure, and is one of the many tools in the state’s data-driven approach to help reduce the spread,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a Monday press conference.

The tool, CA Notify, tracks when users spend at least 15 minutes within 6 feet of another individual who opted into the program and tested positive for the virus in the past 14 days. 

CA Notify can be downloaded from the Google Play Store for free or turned on under “Exposure Notifications” in iPhone settings. Officials at the University of California system, where the tool was piloted, have concluded that CA Notify helped identify those exposed to the virus early on and enabled them to quarantine quicker and reduce the likelihood of viral transmission.

“Our pilot experience starting at UC San Diego and expanding to other UC campuses showed this technology was effective in identifying exposed individuals early for quarantine and testing, and helping keep our communities as safe as possible,” Christopher Longhurst, chief information officer of UC San Diego Health, said in a statement

Developing the Bluetooth technology with Google and Apple, California piloted CA Notify in September at University of California, San Francisco, and University of California, San Diego, before expanding it to five other UCs in mid-November. 

While the tool’s privacy stipulations prevent a precise count of those using the tool, UC officials estimate that more than 250,000 people on their campuses utilize it, according to the California statement. And, in the past eight weeks, more than 60 people using the technology have tested positive for the virus, Newsom said at the conference.

“This holds a lot of promise — I don’t want to overstate it because you need to get to an adaptation level that is significant for it to have the kind of impact that would be profound,” Newsom said at the conference. “But nonetheless, as you’ve seen from the pilot at the UCs, it has been effective.”

The technology, which doesn’t collect location data nor share individuals’ identity, is a long-shot from contact-tracing. 

Nonetheless, it’s set to become the state’s latest tool for stemming the spread of the COVID-19 virus amid the statewide winter surge in cases of the novel coronavirus. 

Additionally, to protect users’ privacy, cell phones using the technology automatically exchange anonymous keys. 

For example, if two people using the tool converse in close quarters for at least 15 minutes, and one of the two tests positive for the novel coronavirus several days later, the other individual — who was exposed to the infected person — will get notified about coming into contact with an infected person and given instructions on what to do next.

“When combined with other actions like wearing masks and physical distancing, CA Notify can help curb the transmission of COVID-19,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, California Health and Human Services Secretary, said in the California statement. “Every day that is saved in alerting others of a possible exposure, is a day that a possibly infectious person can begin self-quarantine and reduce the spread.”