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UW releases coronavirus contact-tracing app

The app is designed to alert people who may have come in contact with the virus while keeping their identity anonymous.

SEATTLE — As parts of the country look to reopen the economy, a new app by the University of Washington hopes to be a reliable way to track the virus and its future spread.

The CovidSafe app is designed to alert people who may have come in contact with the virus. The app works by alerting someone about potential exposure to coronavirus, while giving tips about managing symptoms and ordering a test. 

The app allows people to log their symptoms and will notify them about public health alerts.  

The app requires Bluetooth tracking and location logging, but developers say the best thing about the app is that it is completely anonymous.

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It works by assigning each user a private code name that changes every 15 minutes. Developers say this will keep a person’s identity anonymous.

“Our contact-tracing app addresses underlying privacy, security and re-identification issues, rather than sweeping them under the rug. With CovidSafe, all information is stored locally on your phone unless you choose to share that you’ve tested positive,” said author Justin Chan, a UW doctoral student in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

Users who test positive for coronavirus can share that information with the app. The app will alert anyone who has come in contact with them within the past 14 days. Developers don't expect everyone to download the app, but they believe the tool will be useful along with public health contact-tracing.

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“Conventional contact tracing already requires a person to give up some measure of personal privacy as well as the privacy of those they came into contact with,” said collaborator Stefano Tessaro, an associate professor in the Allen School. “However, we can make acceptable trade-offs to enable us to use the best tools available to speed up and improve that process, all while ensuring stronger privacy guarantees at the same time.”

CovidSafe is not ready to be downloaded from app stores, but an Android demo version is accessible through the team’s website. People who use the demo will be able to send feedback to the development team.

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